In Defense of Flowers

Court: 12.19.02:
Note: There are two more sections after this, if I actually can manage to get around to finishing them. Yay for chapters. Cornel and everything in it--including my opinion of Auron and his eye--are my own work for the fic, but the game itself belongs to Square.

SPOILERS FOR FFX re: Auron, up to and including Yunalesca.
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Carnation, violet, daisy. Lily, magnolia.

Honeysuckle.

Plants spoke poetry between their stalks. Auron knew them only as a footman might, caring little for the earth save what it would tell him about the path ahead. He had not needed to learn that sparser floral growth meant progression away from water. Common sense had told him that at a young age, but had neglected to inform three of the other students in his class.

When the senior monks had set them loose in the wild as a test of survival, one had been found raving from dehydration on the plains. Another, half-devoured by the native fiends when he had been too weak to defend himself. Only the youngest of them, little more than a boy with a forelock that refused to stay slicked back, had had the wit to follow the shadows of a canyon in the expectation that a river had helped to carve it.

He had been correct, but disappointed to find the streambed dry.

The coasts could also deceive if one thought to trace only plantlife to their banks and neglect the type of growth. At fifteen, Auron had been among those too confident to read the warning in the scraggled grasses until they had broken into sand dunes. He and the other boy with him had screamed until they were hoarse, waving their arms like maddened dancers to attract the attention of a vessel almost out of sight.

Their mistake had not been as fatal as the others. Civilization clung to that border of salt, and there would always be a sloop out fishing, the crew with one eye on their lines and the other for their own deaths. The water Auron had begged from them was sweet as wine to his throat, and he had returned the flask with reluctance.

After that, Auron never neglected to keep a watch out for the colors of flowers underfoot. Years later, when he and his pilgrimage companions had tasted dust every time they swallowed, he had used the same trick to find the shore and offer Braska the first sip.

As dangerous as the oceans were with the risings and tumblings of Sin, humans refused to leave that edge between water and land. They invited destruction in exchange for the blessing of the sea. The twists of their wooden bridges changed every month or more, and still they laughed and played games to keep their minds distracted while they nailed their homes back into shape. Cheap bouquets were set in vases as signs of life and hope. Long before all was rebuilt, the wildflowers would brown and wither and be thrown into the water. Their rotted hearts would break apart on the waves to be taken away by the same beast that had swallowed lives into its maw.

But not everyone could be born a fisher, a trader, or a blitzball star. Those who had the fate to live inland had to accept the ocean as a rarity, and Sin as occasional. It could be a good life, though dangerous in its own way.

Auron repeated this now to himself as he trudged up the mountain path to the thin banners of grey smudged against the sky.

In villages where they had to pump water uphill in order to have it at all, a Summoner was a luxury that was even greater than heat. Deaths went unsung save by throats knowing only fragments of prayers, their notes cynical. A sword was more defense against a Fiend than a lyric.

They knew that lesson well in the cliff towns.

It was tradition in these wayward villages of Yevon that flowers be placed upon the eyes of the fallen. The language of plants had been born through the troubles of mortality. Merchants in the ports would hawk roses of many colors to residents who thought it quaint to attribute meaning to a plant, but the demand was still high inland for balsam sticks and pressed hyacinth.

The further in one traveled, away from the shores, the more you would find adherents to the real tradition--that the orbs of one's eyes be removed and the stems placed snugly within the cavities. It was in the hope that any fiends who would later rise might be sightless; disconcerted, kept from recognizing their own forms or the world around them, they might dissolve into pyreflies and be lost without a battle. Usually, they became monsters. Easier all around if they look like that, many would nod, and Auron felt found it hard not to sympathize as he continued to forge ahead in search of a friend that had become a slave and a city that had become a dream.

Villages like that were as common as ticks on sheepdogs; if a Summoner managed to make it all the way here, they would be as lost as surely as if they embarked on a Pilgrimage. There was always another body to Send, another fiend to try and lay to rest, and only the thin hope that Bevelle would remember to send someone to bury you once you were the last one standing.

The valley of Cornel was such a place. It was tucked west of the Calm Lands deeply into mountains, and he found it only by trailing the smoke from its huts in the misguided belief that he would find traders to ride with. The temples of Yevon had written it off long ago. They only remembered it existed because of a particular wool blend that appealed to those with rustic fancies. Too much trouble in their opinion to send a priest, though they accepted its sporadic tributes with ease.

Auron had come after a death.

The board propped in the center of the rough square had blue paint splashed upon it in a hurry, framing the name of one Joshua and his memorable honors beneath it. As the leading craftsman of Cornel, the village had turned out appropriately to remember him. Garlands were everywhere, woven from any plant on hand and several that had been saved for such events. Their colors and shapes were painfully irregular. The village resembled a garden in progressive states of the seasons, most of it dried. Summer had performed the feat of being warm even in the mountains this year, and the fragrances of the blooms mixed like spoiled fruit in the air.

The smoke Auron had seen from the road came from the fires placed around the casket. Their fuel was the stalks of water lilies imported long enough ago to have lost all their original color, turned a shy yellow from age. The bundles were spotted dark in places from strawberry leaves hung in clumps.

Goats bleated arrogant protest when the Guardian had strode into their herd expecting them to make way. In his mind, the animals had no right to block the path. When they seemed about to stand fast and resist, Auron gave a snort to mirror their own and stamped his foot. They fled the man-bull in crimson at that, and the Guardian found himself suddenly wondering when he had acquired gruffness in his repertoire of behaviors. He could guess the source, and the man had looked nothing like a farm beast; only, perhaps, a very shaggy dog.

Auron moved among the thin crowd surrounding the memorial. His steps were as carefully chosen as if he was walking not on stone, but the treachery of a meadow. The wake-robin faces of the villagers parted to accept him in a rustle of their leaves.

Gossip was as thick on the air as pollen.

The man was survived only by his child, a daughter of perhaps eight years as the seasons were counted. His wife had passed away some time ago, victim to pneumonia that they had neither the funds nor access to medicine for in order to keep her alive.

They had left the daughter with a cousin on her mother's side. From what Auron could gather, the girl was named Celsia. The Guardian assumed the choice to be the universal perversity of misguided sire's pride, and only gathered slowly from the whispering that it had been meant to bless her with immortality.

Three days after they had set the first vigil, binding weeds in clumps about the grave marker to represent the flowers that had gone out of season, the guards at the narrow exits to the village had reported hearing strange, wet noises. They had risen just out of range of the torches. The wind blowing southwards had been fouled with rot.

They were not superstitious enough in Cornel to pray aloud to Yevon, but the guards all formed a loose circle with their hands when they reported the incidents, muttering low and with their eyes darting to the corners of the hut.

On the fifth night, when Auron was kicking small stones out of his boots in the wide tent of the communal dining hall, they reported seeing the beast at last.

"A face like bloody meat," one man kept repeating over and over as they tried to force hot teas down his throat. The two others with him refused to speak save for spurts of description: elongated limbs, a spider's rhythm of crawling. Teeth. Too many teeth, and between them, they could not decide how many mouths either.

In the confusion surrounding the village, Auron had been pleased to discover that he was almost invisible, despite carrying the rare status of a visitor. No one had tried to force food upon him yet. Pleasure at this was a warm cloak around him as the fire crackled and spat on its meal of dry wood. Lulled into the illusion of privacy, the Guardian was startled to find a man taking the seat across from him.

"Am I in your way?" A hand still holding the heel of his boot waved at the long table. They ate as a loose community in Cornel; still, Auron suspected that if all the inhabitants sat down at once together, there would remain empty seats in abundance.

The figure shook his head. In the foliage of shadows and light from the hearth, Auron could see grey in the man's hair. "Not at all." His voice was equal in gravel to the Guardian's own, though not as worn. "I heard we had a traveler, you see. Oraster, the headman of Cornel," he added by way of introduction, and when he extended his hand to clasp Auron's, the Guardian hesitated before letting his own cool fingers touch living ones.

At the contact, the man grunted.

"You're chilled still?"

"The winter gets into one's bones." Ignoring the fact that the season gave him the lie, Auron returned to the task of buckling up his boots once more. "I'll be out of your way by tomorrow's light."

Oraster nodded. Generations of herdsmen in his blood gave him the instinct to know when not to taunt the wolf. "No, no, feel free to stay." He held his hands up, palms wide in surrender. "We can empty one of the huts and allow you a bed at the very least. We've had so few here that I'm afraid we customarily use our inn to store trade supplies. I admit, I must apologize for the limited hospitality we can offer just now--"

"It's fine."

Smoldering wood cracked in the fireplace, broke open, and the sparks rose like pyreflies up the chimney.

Switching to a different tack then, the headman settled back on the wooden bench. "What are you doing here, traveler? Come from the port cities?"

"I'm looking for someone." If a city counted as a person, and an Aeon for a friend.

Oraster had spread his hands at that, surprise clear and yet restrained at polite. "You've come to Cornel for that?" His fingers lowered and returned to touch the table. On one wrist, Auron saw, there was a braided vine of what looked like straw that had been studded with yellow sunflowers. A set of fingers twitched in the direction of the Guardian's greatsword, and the beads shifted. "I should hope that it would be a friend you seek here, and no enemy."

The warning was clear. Auron bowed his head. "I wish for no disturbances to your people. That I can assure you." The boot went back onto his foot, jarring on the heel and requiring a tug to have it on firmly.

Silence grew and then devoured the conversation there, sucking on its bones on the hearth. Oraster rose after the last muscle spasm of a word to inform the Guardian of the direction of the guest quarters.

The women gathered to light torches at the entrance of the tent had been muttering to each other when he left.

"Should have known he would have been attached..."

"He won't leave his girl behind."

"Celsia's too young for this, she shouldn't have to see--"

"His -wife-," a matron hissed in a tone meant to shut all their mouths, and then Auron had pushed the canvas flap aside to walk into the night.

The skies were clear enough in the mountain ranges to navigate by. Stars revealed themselves in the wild as they would not in the city, and the shape that blotted out Auron's view of them came swiftly enough that he could not draw his sword in time.