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Flowers in Winter

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It is nearly noon in the courtyard with the fountain, and the late winter sunshine has some warmth at last. In the corner by the doorway, winter anemones are blooming blood red. From somewhere inside the house comes the sound of singing, in harmony with the murmur of falling water: the Queen's ladies at their looms, singing the old weaving-songs. Erif and Philylla, bundled in their coats, have a mess of sewing at their feet, but neither of them has picked up her needle and thread. Instead, Erif is whispering to Philylla's magpie, which chirps back at her.

"What is that naughty bird saying about me?" Philylla asks, half-laughing.

"He's saying you did not sleep well last night," says Erif. "That you had dreams that made you restless."

Philylla frowns at her. "That's true," she says, "but I probably look tired. Anybody could see that."

"Your bird can see that. He says the dreams were about a time long ago." Erif pauses and whispers again to the bright-eyed bird. Her eyes widen at the impressions she receives from the bird's vague amiable mind. "When you were a bear. ... A bear?"

Philylla laughs. "We all were," she tells Erif. "We all took off our little saffron dresses and danced the arkteia in honour of Artemis. Agiatis likes us to keep to the old ways."

"A bear," says Erif again, and mimes with accuracy the clumsy paws and feral growl of a bear-cub. The notion of her long-limbed, slender friend playing at being a wild beast amuses her immensely. "I think you must have been a fearsome bear, Philylla."

"You never danced for Artemis?" Philylla asks.

"We did not," says Erif. "Our dances were for ourselves." Or for the Corn, or for the Spring. The magpie cocks his head at her, then hops over to where Philylla sits on the other end of the shaded stone bench.

"Tell me something you did when you were a child, then," says Philylla.

"I was to be the Spring Queen," Erif says slowly. "So I spent a long time with the old woman, learning what I must do. Oh, Philylla, no! It wasn't all like that -- all lessons and dry dust. I danced with my friends at Plowing Eve and Harvest and the other feasts. I learned to fish, and sew, and ride, and shoot." (She answers Philylla's envious look with a rueful moue.) "I learned about magic, and I used to -- I used to tease Berris awfully."

"What was he like?" asks Philylla eagerly. "When he was a boy?"

Erif has seen the looks that Philylla casts at her brother. Of course she will marry a Spartiate, and have little Spartan babies who will grow up to be soldiers (the boys, at least). But Berris is a handsome man, and he can talk to Philylla in a way that no Greek would, about beauty and art and the right way to live. It's only natural that Philylla should find him interesting.

"He was ..." Erif shrugs. "I was angry, one day. Not at him." She looks away, biting her lip. There is no use in telling Philylla about Harn Der, and the way he had schemed to have his daughter Erif marry Tarrik. True, Philylla's father will decide who she should marry -- another reason why Philylla will never wed Berris, a barbarian from the North! -- but he would not scheme against his daughter's husband. So: Berris, and that day in Marob. "I was angry, so I played a trick on him. I made him take off all his clothes, piece by piece, as we walked along the road."

Philylla gasps laughter. "Oh, I wish I had seen that!"

"A lot of the people did see that," says Erif, laughing too. "It was ... it was a childish thing to do, I think," she says slowly. "It was unjust. But oh, it was funny!"

"What did he do?" wonders Philylla.

"He pulled my plaits," says Erif, tugging at one of them, "and made me pick up his clothes for him."

The magpie is on the ground now, digging his sharp black-and-white beak into the mossy crevices between the paving-stones. He pulls out a fat worm, and swallows it down as it wriggles.

"Do you magic people often, Erif?" asks Philylla. She is not looking into Erif's eyes any more. "Have you ever magicked me?"

"I would not!" says Erif, appalled. "Oh, Philylla, I would never magic you without your wishing it. And anyway," she spreads her hands, and laughs again, and looks up at the cloudless blue sky, "the air of Hellas resists my magic."

"I saw you mend the thread," Philylla reminds her. "When you first came. The broken thread looked like little worms creeping together. There was a drop of blood on your hand, but the thread was strong."

"That was a small magic," says Erif. "Your priests could do as much, if they wished. No, there is something in Sparta -- in all of Hellas, so I believe -- that mislikes my magic: and you, my darling, are too Greek for me to work it on."

"So you wouldn't ... oh, I don't know. You wouldn't make me a love potion?"

Erif laughs aloud, her true laugh, not at all like the gentle amusement of the Queen's ladies. She takes Philylla's hands -- long-fingered brown hands, nails cut square, a scar on the thumb where a knife slipped, a callus from a bowstring -- and laughs more, until Philylla laughs with her. "Oh, Philylla dear: have you not love enough already?"

* * *

The darkest of the winter nights has passed, but it is not yet spring, and the Spring Queen -- however much she might revel in storm and snow -- is weary of the darkness. She has brought an armful of bare branches for Philylla, decorated with little felted flowers, of the kind that adorned her dresses back in Marob. Philylla smiled at them, but wanly. Her heart is too heavy to take comfort in a friend's kindness.

" I would not have had Panteus," she is saying. "Not now, not yet. Except that Agiatis -- Agiatis --"

"My darling, I know," says Erif, pressing her hands into the hard knots of Philylla's shoulders. "But Panteus has loved you for a long time. You know that, don't you? He wanted to marry you for a long time, even if he could only give you half his love."

"Agiatis died," says Philylla stonily. "And Kleomenes turned away from Panteus. From Panteus! He took that other woman. The girl from Megalopolis. He raped her. And she loves him. That sort of woman!"

"I am that sort of woman too," says Erif quickly, before she can swallow back the words. "Tarrik -- I had always meant to marry him. Been meant to marry him." There is bitterness in her mouth. "I liked him before --"

"Erif," says Philylla. "You? Tarrik --"

"He was made to," Erif says, thinking it out as she goes. "I'd magicked him. And my father-- Well. My father wanted us to marry. And Tarrik was the Corn King, after all, and I was the Spring Queen. So we had to marry. Corn and Spring, do you see?"

"But he raped you!"

Outside, the winter gale batters at the shutters. There is snow on the gale, but it never settles. The house is dim and dark, stripped of all its beautiful things. Philylla is still beautiful, but loss and grief have carved her cheekbones, her collarbones sharper. The rosy light from the charcoal brazier casts soft shadows on her skin. She is looking at Erif as though Erif has betrayed her.

"It was a made thing," says Erif. "A meant thing. We had driven him mad, as the gods are said to do. He could no more hold back from me than he could hold back from the Spring Queen at Plowing Eve. Perhaps," she adds softly, thinking it through, "perhaps it was the Corn King who raped the Spring Queen, and not Tarrik and Erif at all."

"But you loved him?"

"That came later," says Erif. "I hated him too. Sometimes I think I still hate him! But Philylla, I miss him so."

"I miss Panteus," says Philylla dully. "Even though he only turned to me because of that girl from Megalopolis. And he's the King's love again now, and they went away from me. Kleomenes has them both. And I have --"

"You are loved," Erif interrupts. Philylla's misery makes her feel helpless. She wishes that Philylla would turn to Berris after all. Berris loves her wholeheartedly, in a way that Panteus never could. (In a way that Erif never could: part of her heart, too, is bestowed elsewhere.) Berris is making paintings of Philylla's stories of Agis. Berris might comfort Philylla, so far from everyone she loves, imprisoned in this cold house with a cold mother and an ailing father and a sister who could not be more different from Philylla if she'd sprung full-grown from the northern wastes. "You are loved. You have my heart, and Berris's, and Panteus's. And nobody made us love you."

"He's in Alexandria," says Philylla dully. "And I have no money."

Erif wants to comfort her. She hugs Philylla closer. "We are both very far from our men," she murmurs against Philylla's ear, missing Tarrik, missing the strength of his arms: oh, Philylla is strong, but she has become brittle: the life is running out of her like water from a broken jar. Erif thinks of Tarrik all the time. Thinks of Marob, and the snow lying deep and soft, and the Council turning against him -- and the seasons gone awry.How can she advise Philylla in matters of love, when her own marriage is for nothing?

If only Tarrik would write to her. If only she could see across the miles to Marob, and know that he was well and lucky again. Then she could help Philylla.

For now she simply embraces her friend, and kisses her, and brushes away the tears as they fall.

* * *

There are budding sprays of greenery in jars of water all about the house: soon they will bloom into the strange bright flowers of Egypt. Erif tells Philylla that she and Ankhet gathered them in the fields. She can't help wondering how long it is since Philylla walked in the greening fields, under the high Alexandrian sun. Philylla's skin is sallow, and her hair has lost its lustre.

"How is Panteus?" Erif asks her. "And how are you, Philylla dear?"

"I'm happy to be here with him at last," says Philylla. "But oh, Erif! Don't think me ungrateful, but sometimes I think your bringing me here to Alexandria was all for nothing! I cannot help him, Erif. He is so kind to me, and so unhappy; and the King goes to Ptolemy again and again for help, and never gets it. I am afraid of what they will do, if they do not get help to go home and retake Sparta."

"You have tried with all your heart, Philylla," says Erif kindly. "No one could have done more."

"And you, Erif -- you came to Egypt with me, though I know you want to go home to Tarrik -- you've tried, too! I'm so sorry --"

"There is nothing to be sorry for," says Erif, though in fact she is not at all sure about this. Surely she must be clean now? It has been nearly four years since she left Marob. Apollo's prophecy is probably, as Hyperides told her, no more than a gabble of verse made up of hints and half-truths. It should not stop her going home.

But she cannot leave Philylla: though sometimes she sees Philylla in her dreams, walking away from Erif into the velvety Egyptian night, and wakes with the certainty that it is Philylla who will leave.

"Panteus loves me, but he is beyond my help," says Philylla stoically. "For his sorrow, and the King's, I can do nothing. But … Berris loves me still. I know it makes him unhappy, to love me without return. But -- oh, Erif, I think I might help him!"

"I think he might help you too," says Erif. "Your life has become narrow and closed-in, Philylla, like winter." And suddenly it all bursts out of her. "I wish I could give you the Spring! I wish I could take you away with me, back to Marob, away from this place!"

"I wish that too," says Philylla. "Will not your magic work here? We are so far from Hellas."

Erif stares at the budding stems, and frowns. She remembers the last time she had tried to cheat nature, back in Marob: how hard it had been to make the leaves unfurl from their hard little shells. But … but perhaps she is clean, after all, because there! a flash of purple, a line of scarlet. The buds are beginning to bloom for the Spring Queen.

"If only I could take you to Marob," she murmurs, transfixed by the evidence of her own magic. "If we were in Marob, I think I could mend anything."

Philylla stares at the splitting bud-cases with a cold grey stare. "I cannot leave Panteus," she says. "He has my heart." Her eyes are glittering, but no tears fall: they are frozen like the streams in Marob. Erif wants to thaw them. She throws her arms around her friend, around Philylla's warm back: is shocked to feel the ribs beneath the skin. Philylla's small breasts press against Erif's. She still does not have a child. Erif is suddenly sure that she never will.

"Darling Philylla, don't -- Berris loves you. Let him bring you a little joy." Erif thinks that perhaps she might bring Philylla joy in that way, with the kindness of her body and her heart. But Berris would be terribly hurt, would see it as a betrayal: and after all, Erif has fled the embraces of a woman before, at Ptolemy's court. Perhaps it is not a thing she could do.

"I think perhaps we might bring one another joy," says Philylla softly, like a woman worn out with grief. "For a little while."

"All we ever have," says Erif, "is a little while."