"It looks exactly the same."
First Dedicate Initiate Crane looked at the amused man who stood beside him, and raised his eyebrows. "I have no desire to tamper with perfection," he said.
The man laughed, loosely rolling his broad shoulders, stretching scarred arms and tattooed fingers. He grinned at the Dedicate. "Someone much higher than both of us says perfection's something that's fluid," he said. "You never reach it for long, since it keeps moving."
Crane smiled faintly. "Outside Namorn, Briar," he murmured, "there are those who may disagree with your Empress."
Briar shrugged. "Who said anything about her being my Empress? I'm still a free man, me. You think Berenene would let me come and go if I was anything else?"
"I sincerely doubt you are this glib in her presence, Briar."
"Course I am. What d'you think she keeps me around for?" Briar walked a little way away from the taller Dedicate, kneeling to satisfy a young heliotrope, as pretty and out-of-place amongst the traditional acacias along the garden path as an overdressed houseguest. "Gallantry, gardening, and good-looks."
"Glad to be."
Crane watched as Briar gently caressed a blighted flower. Dimly, the Air Dedicate wondered how he had missed it. "Sometimes," he said, "people let things go. Time passes. The Empresses is gradually getting on in years…."
Briar snorted. "And she's not the only one. I never thought you'd endure going out in public, greying like that."
Crane ran a limp hand though his long, salt-and-pepper hair. "Your crudity is puerile," he said, looking down at the younger man and seeing deep crowsfeet and shallower traces of other lines.
"Ever been initiated into the world of hair-dyes?"
"I think you will find," Crane sniffed, "that a Dedicate's vows of poverty do forfeit one's means of purchasing…hair dyes."
Briar smirked. "One may adapt," he said. "Lakik preserve you, you're a plant mage, even if you are scared to soil those pretty hands of yours. I'm sure Rosethorn would just love to know you can't brew a dye."
"I will have you know that Dedicate Rosethorn and I are above such petty rivalry," Crane said loftily, watching as Briar's attempt at a straight face failed half way through the sentence.
"And I'm Berenene's concubine."
"That, Briar, is not exactly the best comparison to make under—"
"—Really, Crane." Inked flowers under Briar's hands bloomed gaudy reds and yellows. "Why don't you? I mean, Rosie's vain enough to, and she's been brewing them for Lark for years. Mila, even I use them and I'm still littler than you aged lot, and anyway, you're the last person who I'd expect to just let go, if you know what I mean."
Crane laughed as Briar left the plants to come back to him. "You failed to imagine I could age gracefully in twenty years, boy?" The man let his hand rest on one of the smooth, thick panes of glass that made up his greenhouse." "Or just afraid of change?"
Briar's hand joined his; he shrugged with one shoulder. "It's just strange, is all," he said. "What with this looking exactly the same."