Kaddar had always liked flowers. Roses, in particular. There was just a special allure to them, one that he couldn't place. An odd sensation stirred through him whenever he saw one in its eternal beauty. Ever since he was young enough to be outside in the garden, he had always set aside a particular section for his roses. Whenever he went to his garden to tend his trees and flowers, he would always see to them first, just in case a new bloom had flowered overnight, in need of water.
Straightening, he drew his forearm across his sweaty forehead, grinning at the latest addition to the rose family. It was an unusual specimen indeed, a rose of the purest white he had ever seen. The petals were thick and fragrant, and it almost looked like something out of a portrait, instead of an actual flower. It was a sole bloom, but he was determined to help more of them grow. The white glowed a rich ivory in the light of the setting sun and he admired its beauty and uniqueness among the several other, brighter, shades.
He settled into a bench under a willow tree, not wanting to leave the peaceful seclusion of his garden just yet. Mithros knew, as soon as he dared to venture back into his family's country villa, his elder sister Nadi would start pestering him to help her with her Old Thak again, and he just wasn't in the mood to tutor his scatterbrained sister.
Feeling a touch at his shoulder, Kaddar leapt up and spun around. Upon seeing who his visitor was, he bowed deeply, suddenly uncomfortably aware of how he must look—and smell—after three hours of working in his garden. "Father," he said respectfully.
"At ease, soldier." Gazanoi Iliniat's voice and face were stern, but his dark eyes held a touch of amusement. Gesturing for his son to sit down, he walked around the patch and sat next to him. "I see you have been working at your roses again?"
Kaddar's face lit up. "Yes, as a matter of fact,"—he rose and showed his father the sole white flower proudly—"I just planted this today. I am hoping it will grow fast, before the heat of the summer makes the air too dry for it. The climbers are doing well," he said, eyeing the vines of deep crimson climbing roses that twined their way up the willow tree. "Recovered quite well from last season's fungus."
Gazanoi slid down from the bench and knelt in front of a patch of soil. "Look at this." Kaddar followed, and his father could hear his audible hiss of breath. The eleven-year-old reached out gently to a drooping peach-colored rose with the signs of discolor creeping into its petals. His fingers glowed a deep green, and he touched the rose's stem, his magic coursing through the flower. Slowly, it stood upright, the healthy whitish-orange color returning.
"You have improved," his father told him, but the words fell on deaf ears. Kaddar was conducting a flower-by-flower examination of his roses, on hands and knees, ignorant to the thorns that pricked his arms and legs mercilessly. Gazanoi rolled his eyes and drew his son up by the shoulders firmly. "Your precious roses are fine," he said. "Now, come with me."
Kaddar trotted in his wake, feeling slight trepidation. Did his father think that he was spending too much time with his flowers and not enough on his studies? No, he decided recklessly. He would have gotten right to the point if that were the case. And, besides, he was working doubly hard on his magical theory, after barely passing last semester.
He discovered quickly that that was not the case, but he was too busy gaping wordlessly to be relieved. His father had led him to the top of one of the small hills that surrounded their country villa, and the view was spectacular. The liquid fire of the setting sun at their backs cast reddish-gold and purple shadows over the Carthaki landscape, and Kaddar marveled at the sheer magnificence of it all. The rolling, golden plains of the far South were engulfed in mysterious shrouds of dark blues and purples, which reminded Kaddar strongly of a portrait his mother had painted before his birth.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" his father asked. Kaddar could only nod in agreement, before sitting down on the soft grass of the hilltop.
They sat quietly for a few minutes, watching the sunset. Gazanoi broke the peaceful silence at last. "Kaddar, you do know that the Seventy-Fifth Division is moving South next month?"
Judging by the way the boy's head swiveled toward his father and his stunned expression, Kaddar hadn't known. "You…" he started, throat dry. "I thought that Colonel Tesmar's division was going." Trying to keep his voice level, Kaddar hoped fervently that his father was joking. Albeit the fact that this would be a very sick and twisted joke.
Gazanoi sighed. "His Majesty ordered that my division go instead. He hopes that my status as Prince of Chelogu might dissuade the Zallaran rebels from attacking the Imperial Army, for fear of danger from Chelogu."
Kaddar didn't find this an adequate explanation. "Surely there is some other way, Father," he protested, half pleading.
"Kaddar," his father shifted slightly in his position, and he knew he was in for a lecture. "As General of the second-largest sector of the Imperial Army, it is my duty to go, regardless of the danger."
"No buts. One day you will take my place, and you need to learn that your duty is not only to your family and yourself, but to your country and emperor."
Kaddar bowed his head submissively, but inside he was smoldering with resentment. He might not have been old enough to attend the meetings held by the emperor and his generals, but he was educated in the Imperial University. The upper years were all talking about it; many of them had fathers and brothers who were also being sent to fight the rebels down South. Even though the Crown was downplaying it, many of the other students had parents who were upper officers in the Army and they were saying that the Zallaran rebels were indeed extremely dangerous. He didn't want his father to be down there, general or not. Despite what his father had said, there were other able-bodied high-ranking officers who could easily head the Seventy-Fifth.
Gazanoi sensed his son's rebellious thoughts and reached out to ruffle his hair. "It will be all right," he assured him. "The rebels may have many followers, but they are reckless hotheads, no match for the might of the Imperial Army. If it reassures you, our western fleet of ships will be on standby."
Nodding his head, Kaddar nestled into the rock outcropping at his back. "I'm just worried," he admitted. "I hear a lot of things." Understatement, he thought. Large understatement.
Putting on a brave face, Gazanoi said brightly, "In any case, I would not allow myself to be injured by the rebels. Hmph, some officer I'd be, getting injured and making my family fret. Just wait, Kaddar, our victorious army will come marching back, come Midwinter, and I'll be none the worse for wear."
Kaddar perked up, his father's confidence palpable. "I will hold you to that, Father."
"You do that. When I see you next, I expect to see you as a successful second-year at the university, and…" he trailed off, stroking his chin pensively. "And I expect you to have a full bouquet of your lovely white roses in full bloom for offerings to Mithros as thanks for our victory. Don't neglect any of your duties." Gazanoi held a hand out. "Now, help your father up before he freezes." Kaddar snickered and complied, knowing full well that it would be high summer in a month.
As they began their descent, Kaddar's father stopped in his tracks. Kaddar paused. "Father?" he inquired, puzzled.
"You have heard of the rare desert roses that grow only in the southern regions?" Gazanoi inquired abruptly.
Kaddar nodded. "Yes, of course I have."
"When I return," he said softly. "I will do my best to bring a few back for you, so you can start growing those in your garden as well."
Kaddar's eyes grew wide. "Seriously?"
"When I have not been serious?"
A huge grin spread across his face. "Desert roses," Kaddar said to himself, trying out the words. "My own desert roses." Suddenly, he grabbed his father in an enthusiastic embrace that almost sent both of them rolling down the hill. "Thank you," he mumbled into the linen of Gazanoi's tunic.
His father patted him on the head, a gesture that Kaddar would have detested on any other day, but he let it slide. "Now, let's go back down before your sisters demolish dinner without us. Can't have that, can we?"
"No, we can't," Kaddar agreed solemnly. Resuming their trek, he couldn't help thinking that he really had no cause to worry. But strangely enough, his eyes fell upon a patch of bright orange roses, the kind used for funerals. Undoubtedly, they would be put to use after the army returned, for the poor souls who were no longer with them. He felt a prick of foreboding, and Kaddar shook the thought out of his head as he raced down to catch up with his father.
There would be no need for funeral roses for Gazanoi Iliniat.
It was a rainy day, oddly enough. Unusual for this time of this year; unusual for any time of year in Carthak, as a matter of fact. The sky was an ominous shade of gray, blanketed by thick clouds. Thunder and the occasional flash of lightning decorated the late evening sky. It had been raining for almost a day and a half now. The ceaseless rain pounded on the roof of the Iliniat villa, but the occupants were oblivious to its existence.
"If it is any consolation, Your Highness," the major said softly, "he died valiantly. The general fought the rebels to his last breath. He saved the lives of three other officers, and if it was not for him, our army would have perished."
Princess Fazia let out a choked sob at this, her red-rimmed eyes overflowing. Kaddar wiped her tears away with a sleeve numbly, still in shock. Fifteen-year-old Nadareh squeezed his and Nadi's hands tightly, doing her best to comfort her younger siblings.
The major stood up and bowed deeply. "I extend my deepest condolences for your grief," he whispered, although his voice shook. The slave who stood at the door showed him out, but the family took no notice. The only sounds in the room were Fazia's stifled sobs and Nadi's whimpers.
Kaddar moved from the sofa and knelt closer to the ceremonial casket that had been placed at their altar to Mithros. He brushed the cover aside and looked at his father's body. Gazanoi lay peacefully inside, apparently unharmed. It was only the black marks on his neck that identified his demise as the result of a death spell. His hand sought out his father's cold one, and he squeezed the hand tightly, willing to feel warmth and a pulse beneath his skin. He waited, his throat aching with constricted sobs.
Vaguely aware of his mother and sisters' presence behind him, Kaddar looked up to his mother for help. "Father can't be dead," he murmured hoarsely. "He promised…"
Fazia wiped her eyes and hugged her only son close, "I know, darling," she whispered, voice breaking. "I know." Nadi and Nadareh joined them, and the family clung to each other, alone in their grief.
Outside, the rain pounded on.
It was a typically cold, blustery day in Carthak. The rain of the past few weeks were a mere memory now, replaced by the dry wind of Carthaki winters. Technically, Kaddar should have been inside, helping his mother with the huge amounts of work that had to be done. However, Princess Fazia had ordered her three children to go out into the city or the university.
"This atmosphere is no place for you three," she had told them firmly. "The gods know that you've seen enough pain in the past month. You don't need any more. Now, go, and try to get your minds off…this."
It isn't that easy, mother, Kaddar thought. He was curled up in a ball, alone, on the bench beneath the willow tree. His heavy black mourning clothes kept him warm, but he still felt cold. Not for the first time, he felt bitter tears pricking at his eyelids. He promptly buried his head in his cloak, scrubbing at his eyes until he felt certain that he wouldn't start crying again. Everybody always said that having a good, long cry would make one feel better. He had cried enough, but all that had accomplished was to make him feel even worse.
He dragged himself upright, trying to concentrate on something else—anything else. Automatically, Kaddar began to follow the timeworn trail down his garden. I hope the wind hasn't damaged my roses. The thought was so sudden and so random that he blinked. He hadn't even tended to his flowers for the past week. Guilt added to the barrage of emotions swirling inside his head.
A gust of sharp wind blew, rattling the bare branches of the trees above him. Don't neglect your duties. The voice was so soft Kaddar almost missed hearing it. He froze. "Father?" he whispered to an empty path. Silence. Of course. The dejected boy kept on walking, head down, eyes silently cataloging his flowers. There wasn't much damage done, but he had lost almost all of his lilacs.
A memory of a long-ago afternoon resurfaced as he picked up a fallen lilac. He couldn't have been more than five years old, old enough to plague his sister Nadi. He was tying his sleeping sister's long braids around a tree trunk while devising a devious plot to avoid Nadareh and bath time. Kaddar blinked; he remembered it as if it was yesterday.
He was so wrapped up in his memory that he forgot to look where he was going, so it came as a large surprise when one of his bootlaces snagged on a pebble, pitching him headfirst into a puddle of mud. This is a nightmare, he said internally as he dragged himself out of the puddle, cursing under his breath. I will wake up in the morning and discover that this was all a hallucination brought on by one of Nadareh's cursed experiments. Trudging down the path again, while wiping mud from his face, he wished with all his heart that it was true.
Stopping at the familiarity of his huge rose patches, his jaw dropped. The roses were all virtually unharmed. A few of the younger pink ones hadn't weathered it, but as he did a count, he realized that everything else was intact. Kaddar dropped to his knees, examining all of them with a growing feeling of happiness inside. Fingering the petals of a red rose thoughtfully, he felt a small smile touch his lips. By rights these rosebushes shouldn't have survived the storm and the winds afterwards.
Logically, he knew that the souls of the dead had no say of what went on in the mortal world. But it just seemed strange that his flowers, those that were almost his family, had survived unharmed. "Thank you, Father," he murmured, looking at the blossoms with misty eyes.
Coming to a sudden decision, Kaddar crossed over the patch to a certain rose. The sole white rose that he had planted almost six months ago had taken root, and now he had an entire bushel of the creamy ivory-colored flowers.
And I expect you to have a full bouquet of your lovely white roses in bloom for offerings to Mithros as thanks for our victory.
Kaddar made his decision with an unusual abruptness, and immediately set upon his rosebushes with bare hands. The thorns clawed at his hands, and rivulets of blood dripped from them, but he continued determinedly. Finally, he had a handful of his best roses plucked and de-thorned, with the green fire of his Gift feeding nutrients through the stems so they would stay longer without wilting.
He had reached the far end of the courtyard now, and the sun was beginning to peek out from behind the clouds. At last, he had reached his destination.
It was an extremely old sepetir tree, magnificent in the few golden rays of light that shone through the clouds. The sunlight hit the drops of rain on the pearly green leaves so that the radiant multicolored sparks that glittered off of them made Kaddar squint. He approached the tree slowly, holding the roses at his side gently.
This tree had been planted by Fazia's grandfather, and had always been one of the general's favorite places to relax. His wife and children knew that if he wasn't at home with them or out on the hills, he would be here. Kaddar remembered the times that his father had brought him out here and told him tales of his youth, in the faraway land of Chelogu. It was only fitting that this was chosen as his final resting place.
Kaddar stared at the inscription on the headstone, trying to gain control of his emotions. Slowly sinking down onto the dirt, he laid his handful of roses at its base reverently. "I know it's late, Father," he began shakily. "But I have the bouquet of roses I promised you."
After just staring into space for a moment, he began to talk. Not to anybody in particular, but just to the general surroundings. If he closed his eyes, he could almost see his father, sitting in front of him and listening with the thoughtful expression that never left his face.
Quite a while later, he finally stood up, smiling down at the headstone. "Thank you for listening," he said aloud, before turning around and beginning the walk back.
Of course, he had left behind a bouquet of white roses.
"It's very early, isn't it?"
The voice startled Kaddar, as it seemed to come out of nowhere in the silent night. Obviously, it hadn't come from nowhere, but from the young woman who stood at his side, giving him an understanding smile. "Yes, it is," he agreed. A wry smile twisted his features. "It seems that we never see our rooms earlier than midnight now, doesn't it?"
Kalasin nodded. "Of course, in the light of these…unfortunate circumstances…involving Scanra and Galla." The empress was well versed in the art of understatement.
"Unfortunate circumstances," he sighed. "Pity these unfortunate circumstances prevent one from getting enough sleep. I think my system has become accustomed to sleeping at one o' clock in the morning and waking at seven. We'll never sleep now. It's only eleven."
"Only eleven?" Kalasin let out a slightly delirious giggle. "Oh, how I wish this entire business was over and done with."
Kaddar leaned against a pillar. "If they decide not to agree with our latest compromise, we will never have a moment of sleep again."
She patted his arm. "If we aren't planning on sleeping, then, would you object to taking a walk in the gardens?"
Looking up from his fatalistic contemplation of his boot, Kaddar could see that her eyes were shining hopefully. As if he could turn her down. He offered her his arm. "Lead the way, Kally."
He could tell that he had surprised her with the sudden use of her nickname, and not in an unpleasant way. They walked through the main hall of the deserted Imperial Palace, Kalasin admiring the abstract portraits on the walls, which never failed to amaze her.
While engaged in her own world of swirling colors and enchanting landscapes, she was oblivious to the eyes that followed her movements affectionately.
Kalasin was a mystery to him. Kaddar had tried and failed to read her; it hadn't yet occurred to him that she wasn't a book or a magical theory to be analyzed. But when it all came down to the essentials, he was always forced to admit that he did not really know her. Which you should, a voice inside him said snappishly. You have been married to her for four months, and you still can't gather enough courage to even kiss her.
Kaddar winced defensively. It wasn't his fault that he didn't know his wife as well as he should. He had married her in October of last year, and it was now February. Most of that time had been spent in serious peace negotiations with Galla. Their neighbor to the north had decided to renew an age-old grudge, only this time they had allied with Scanra. Normally Scanra wouldn't even be considered a serious threat, except now Scanra and Sarain had forged a tentative alliance. To add to all of the madness, half of the northern branch of the Carthaki Navy was keeping peace down south.
He gave a passing palace cat the full blast of his most world-weary glare, making it hiss and skulk into the shadows. With all of that going on, he barely had enough time for a chess game with Kalasin, let alone a heart-to-heart talk, or—as one side of him badly wanted—a full-out snogging session.
Nevertheless, in the past months he and Kalasin had forged a friendship and successful partnership. It amazed and comforted him that they could work together so well.
A cool blast of air pulled him out of his reveries. His eyes widened as he took in the beauty of the still night. Even after ten years of living at the palace, the Imperial Gardens at night always rendered him speechless. The soft, delicate scent of lilies perfumed the air, and as far as the eyes could see, white flowers carpeted the grassy lawns. A gigantic topiary of a griffin was right in front of them, complete with two canary fledglings perched inside the hollows that served at the griffin's wings. Somewhere to their north, he could hear the bubbling of an artificial fountain. Small balls of multicolored fire decorated and illuminated the pathways of the gardens.
Judging from Kalasin's expression, she had never been here before. Kaddar laughed, giving her hand a squeeze. "This is only a small part of it. Remarkable, isn't it?"
She nodded in agreement. "It is." Crossing over to a stray lily, she picked it up and tucked it behind his ear.
Kaddar blinked, bewildered, and she gave him a wicked grin. "You look lovely, my lord."
"Aaah," he mumbled, feeling slightly ridiculous at having a lily, of all things, behind his ear. Funnily enough, the light touch of her fingertips brushing against his temples as she secured it seemed to linger, and he didn't move to remove it. Instead, he kept close behind her as she walked through the corridors of flowers, marveling at everything. Her delight was almost tangible.
He made another sudden decision. Given, it was late, but they might not get another opportunity like this in a long time. Impulsively, he grabbed her by the hand and spun her around once as if they were dancing. Very uncharacteristic, the sane side of him remarked. "Kaddar?" she asked, confused.
"I have something to show you," he explained hurriedly, as they set out at a brisk trot down the pathway. "I think that you might enjoy it."
Stopping in front of a seemingly solid wall of vines and lilacs, he used his Gift to open a doorway for them, bending vines and flowers easily. Kaddar helped her through before sealing the gateway with a wave of green fire. He placed his hands on her shoulders and turned her around gently, preventing her from gawping further at a family of nesting finches inside a huge water lily.
Kalasin gasped at the sight. "Welcome to my garden," he murmured proudly. Then, with some measure of regret, he noticed that she had pulled away from him and begun to pace around the garden, eyes wide with amazement.
Trying to convince himself that his admiration of his garden was not vanity, he admitted that his little corner of the world looked particularly magnificent tonight. The blooms ranged in color from the creamy shades of white, to bright yellows, mixed with the pale purples of the north. Vibrant pinks, carmines, and crimsons mixed with the mellower shades, including the unique dark violets that Kaddar treasured. The thick, sweet scent of the roses infused the air, along with the fragrant perfumes of orange blossoms.
Kalasin sat on a swing that he had hung on the boughs of the orange tree, her nose buried in a pile of pink flowers that had fallen from the trees. Amused at the sight, Kaddar sat beside her, making the swing creak slightly at the added weight. "This is beautiful," she said suddenly. "Did you grow them all yourself?"
"Yes," he said, leaning back. He smirked in response to her surprised look. "A decade of stress and boredom. Surprising what it can do to you."
Kalasin grinned and slid off the swing, holding her hands out to him. "All right. If you'll excuse me, I have to go and further adore the products of your stress and boredom." He watched her lazily as she slipped off her shoes and sat on the edge of the fountain closest to a rosebush, examining the roses with interest. Personally, Kaddar thought that she looked like the prettiest flower in the garden, pathetically clichéd as it might sound. Her fine deep blue dress and shawl brought out her eyes, and she had removed the sheer veil that covered the lower half of her face. Some of the elder members of the Council of Lords had leveled disapproving glances at her, but Kalasin didn't seem to notice or mind.
He cocked an eyebrow at her. She had gotten up from her perch and was now attempting to gather some roses with her bare hands, regardless of the thorns that scraped at them. A perplexed Kaddar strode over to her and took her hands in his. Kalasin looked up at him and opened her mouth to comment, but he cut her off by pulling her back to the fountain.
"Don't do that," he said firmly, lifting her hands up and checking for damage on the tender skin of her wrists. "If you must, wear gloves."
"Gloves?" she asked, making a face. "In this weather?" Before he could reply, she closed her eyes tight for a moment, and a cool wave washed over her hands. He gaped—they had healed before his eyes. There weren't even any scars. Her hands felt warm in his own, and it was only then that he realized he was still holding onto them. He dropped them, glad that it was too dark for her to see him blush.
They didn't move for a little while after that, Kaddar enjoying the feeling of her being so close to him. "You are a very good healer," he said at last, desperate for something to talk about.
She moved slightly, and he could tell that she was pleased. "Thank you. I graduated at the top of my class, with honors, at the Royal University," she sighed. "I miss it."
The last confession surprised him. Not knowing how to react, he put an arm around her awkwardly. "I think we all do. I remember my own days at the university." The memory brought a reminiscent smile to his face. "Especially a particular end-of-year party that the sixth-years threw. I recall, a few of my friends and I snuck in and we all got very drunk."
Kalasin giggled. "I remember an incident like that, around the time of Roald's betrothal. One of the squires had a bit too much wine at dinner, and he challenged Lady Alanna to a ballad-singing contest!"
"I recall my mother had given her the unfortunate task of breaking up the party, although by that time most of us weren't sober enough to vacate before Lady Alanna vacated us. In any case, she stormed in, and Squire Neal swaggered up to her and challenged her to the contest." She snorted with laughter. "He began to sing 'The Ballad of the Brainy Duck,' at the top of his voice, and I think it was only the fact that he was drunk that saved him from being knocked into the nearest fountain."
Kaddar chuckled. "How…odd. Although I must say that I'm very eager to hear the tales of a drunk Kalasin."
"Princesses don't get drunk," she said loftily. "Now, tell me what the outcome of your little social gathering was."
"No, you don't want to hear that," he protested. "Trust me, you don't."
"I won't laugh," she coaxed.
He rolled his eyes. Women. "Fine. If you must know, Master Lindhall discovered our 'social gathering' after we began to set off the fireworks and almost made the highest spire on the headmaster's tower explode. He stormed in, and…"
"And?" Kalasin prompted.
Coloring, he finished the sentence in a barely audible mutter. "And I fell on my knees and declared my undying love for him."
She was silent for a moment, then came the barely stifled snickering.
"You said you wouldn't laugh!"
"I'm not laughing," Kalasin said after she gained control of herself. "I'm merely expressing my polite amusement."
Kaddar was strongly tempted to push her into the fountain, but was restrained only by the fact that, since they were sitting so close together, she was likely to grab onto him and cause him to fall as well. Of course, that wouldn't be such a terrible prospect, but if they both caught a cold, his cousin Zaimid would probably put two and two together and dose them with vile potions. Then would come the smug looks. And, of course, his mother wouldn't permit him to throw his own cousin in the dungeons.
Thankfully, she let the subject rest and yawned, then hastily apologized. "Sorry. I didn't mean to be rude."
"It's all right," he responded, stifling a yawn himself. "Should we go back? It's late, and I don't think it would be appreciated if we fell asleep during the conferences tomorrow."
"Oh, of course," she said dryly, standing up and dusting off her skirt. As they left, Kaddar wished that he could come here more often. In light of the current situation, he barely got to see this place.
They were just about to enter the palace again when Kalasin stopped abruptly in front of the entrance. Kaddar paused mid-step. "Kalasin?"
Somewhat timidly, she put a hand on his arm. "Thank you," she murmured, moving to take a step closer. Unfortunately, the toe of her sandal caught in a crack, and she toppled forward somewhat unceremoniously into his arms.
Kaddar never could remember what exactly had happened there, except that one second Kalasin was standing in front of him and the next, their faces were barely an inch apart. Needless to say, he didn't know who had initiated the kiss; he could only remember pulling away belatedly when he realized that they weren't even supposed to be in such a position, and the knowledge that too long without breathing could affect one's health.
Both of them blushing and stammering apologies, the couple finally made their way to their room, Kaddar not knowing whether to be thrilled that he had finally kissed her, or dejected because it was an accident.
As first kisses go, that was barely passable, he reflected later. Kalasin curled up beside him, muttering something about roses for ammunition in her sleep. Impulsively, he bent and kissed her cheek before pulling the covers around him. It wasn't that bad, I suppose. After all, he smirked; we do have a long time to practice.
That night in his prayers, he named the arrogant Gallans, whichever careless worker had let that crack in the marble pass unnoticed, and rose gardens.