“Vervain was far from the first flower mage, but he was the best there ever was,” said Solace.
The glass bottle that contained the locus’ domain didn’t have anything so neat and ordered as a garden would imply, but there was a small section that was devoted to Solace’s side business as a flower mage. In a proper garden, you laid everything out in clean, ordered rows, clearing away the weeds, grass, and everything that wasn’t a cultivated plant. In Solace’s unstructured growing space (okay, fine, garden) it was hard to tell which plants were supposed to be there and which ones weren’t. I couldn’t see terribly many flowers, though some of the plants definitely didn’t look like they belonged; long red vines with sharp brown ridges, a low green plant with blue-edged leaves that spread out to cover a whole square yard of space, and a tree whose trunk was a vivid purple where there were cracks in its thick black bark.
“A flower mage usually has a few carefully cultivated strains,” Solace continued. She spoke calmly and walked among the garden as we talked, touching plants as she went and sometimes looking them over, gently turning a leaf this way or that. “I have eight. Vervain was said to have twelve thousand. He supposedly had no grand secret, he was simply very good at what he did. He traveled widely and spread his seeds in the perfect places, leaving his plants untended, and he had a knack for coming back to find the buds just before the bloom.”
This … was not exactly the foundational education in flower magic that I had hoped for, when I had asked her if she could teach me what she knew. It felt like if I’d asked someone how to program a computer and they’d started me off on a lecture about Alan Turing.
“I mean, it does sound like he had some kind of secret,” I said. “Predictive magic or something like that?”
“Possibly,” said Solace with a nod. She moved beneath a tree, and the dappled light from the artificial sun overhead played across her light green skin. “I’m sure that people have theories, I’m just repeating what I was told.”
“He was a hundred years before your time?” I asked.
“Yes,” nodded Solace. “He casts a shadow over every flower mage before or since. He was prolific in a way that no one else has ever been. In a word, he was special, and you need to understand that going in.”
“Huh,” I said. “You know, I actually know basically nothing about flower magic, and Vervain is just some guy I read about in a history book, so … if you’re trying to tell me that I’m never going to reach his heights, and I shouldn’t be going down this path without expecting a long, frustrating slog, point taken. But also, you should know that I’m exceptional, and if anyone can do whatever it was Vervain did, it’s me.”
Solace grinned at me. “I wouldn’t have figured you for the cocky type,” she said.
“At this point, I think it’s a realistic assessment of my abilities,” I replied. Not to mention the fact that this entire world very much appears to have been built for me, which we don’t talk about in polite company.
“Very well,” said Solace. “You said that Amaryllis provided you with an overview of flower magic? Something like a shorter version of what’s in The Commoner’s Guide to Flower Magic, perhaps?”
“Ugh,” I said. “I hate that series.”
(When I was rich and famous … well, I was already rich, considering that we as a group had something like twenty million obols worth of gold, magic items, and things Fenn had stolen. But when I was really rich, and could move around without worrying about the international community putting out a warrant for my arrest because of all the people I’d (probably justifiably) killed, I was going to publish my own book series, with titles like Flower Magic: A User’s Manual, and they would tell you how to actually do magic, in concise terms, without personal stories, anecdotes, or blatant propaganda about how great magic users were. And then the athenaeums would start gunning for me, because they were the ones that ensured we had the craptastic Commoner’s Guide in the first place.)
“Amaryllis said, basically, that flower mages carry small buds around with them, and each is a different spell, whose effects are as good as impossible to predict unless you have a lot of time to scope them out,” I said. “She was talking more from the perspective of personal combat though, I think she just didn’t want me to be blind-sided and trying to figure out the new gimmick of the week on the fly. My impression was that it wasn’t a path worth even trying to pursue, because you need a plot of arable land.” I looked to the land around us, a solid square mile inhabited only by five people and a magical doe. “She said you could start with ordinary seeds, which would take a hellishly long time, or take seeds from a flower mage, which had to be done willingly and then half the time just failed anyway.”
“I wonder if she missed the heart of flower magic or gave you a poor overview on purpose,” said Solace with a frown. She put her hand up to shield her eyes and looked across the land, to the large tree whose interior space had once housed a dozen druids and now served as our group home. “That girl will have to give an accounting of herself.”
I frowned slightly at that, because Amaryllis was my friend, and I wanted to defend her, even over an innocuous comment like that. Maybe that was a little bit of me being a white knight, but my perspective on Amaryllis had changed over the last few days. She wasn’t someone who needed protecting, and certainly not from slightly rude comments by Solace, but that didn’t really tamp down my instinct.
“Things have been worked out, between the three of you?” asked Solace, because I had been distracted for a bit too long. “Grak is something of a gossip.”
“I … did not know that about him,” I said. I thought back to him telling me not to sleep with Fenn. “Okay, actually, I guess I did. But we haven’t had that much opportunity to talk. Anyway, things are fine between Fenn and Amaryllis and myself.” It had been three days now that we’d been at the foothills of the World Spine, sitting behind wards and setting watches, looking out for an attack that we were fairly sure wasn’t going to come. Fenn and I were sharing a bed, but —
“I gave Fenn some herbs that will prevent her from having a child, but they’ll take a few weeks to start working,” said Solace.
I could feel my cheeks grow warm at that. “Thanks,” I said. “It’s not really … we’re taking it slow.”
Fenn and I had been sharing a bed together since even before we started dating, because she “liked company” when she slept, and that hadn’t changed, which meant that each night was spent touching and kissing, snuggling and cuddling. The beds were all set into alcoves, which meant that there wasn’t terribly much privacy, and the deer kept sticking its stupid six-eyed head through the windows of the tree house, which for me personally was a mood-killer. Fenn simply waved hi to it and went back to the kissing.
Even if we’d had a private room for ourselves, with an actual door we could lock, we probably still would have been taking things slow, because there were elven cultural ideas about ‘consumption’ and a different elven physiology, both of which made me less inclined to try to rush things, at least not before we’d had our first proper date. Our relationship had this frantic, manic quality to it, a desperation and need that almost frightened me, and all the moreso because both of us felt it. The phrase ‘like a dam breaking’ doesn’t really have that good of connotations, when you stop to think about it. It sometimes felt like we were a top, spinning out of control.
Her loyalty went up twice, once when I caught her looking over at me and she shot me a silly, happy smile, and the other time when I passed by where she was sitting and gave her a quick kiss on the head. I had complex feelings about those loyalty messages, because I found them gratifying, but also didn’t want to see our relationship defined in game terms.
There’s a part of me that wants to sanitize it, to shield it all from view, to explain what being with Fenn was like but draw a curtain over the bed we shared and keep all that private. That’s my Midwestern upbringing talking, and to put up that curtain would be, in a sense, to presuppose that there was nothing there worth talking about, that nothing changed between the two of us as a consequence of those nights. And that is, if you know anything about relationships, clearly untrue, because it’s not like the sex part of things gets divorced from the romance, or the friendship, or any other component of the relationship. Even if you’re not talking, physical intimacy is a dialogue all its own. There’s this idea, I think, in some strands of Earth culture, where we turn from humans, to rutting animals, and then back again, and I don’t think that’s particularly true to my experience.
So, in brief, Fenn and I had spent the previous night feeling our way around each other, both literally and metaphorically. I had still not read what The Book of Blood had to say on the subject of elves and half-elves, specifically with regard to the topic of sex, which took up half the word count of any entry in the book. So when my hand stopped running over her body and slipped between her legs, I wasn’t just filled with nervous excitement for all the obvious reasons I would have been in the opening moves of a relationship. There was a real sense of the unknown. I focused on her entirely, feeling her with my fingers, watching her face. I could see her trepidation and feel the tension in her muscles where her body was pressed against mine.
I don’t know what exactly she feared, whether it was that I would pull away in disgust or study her like a clinical scientist, but she relaxed by degrees as I kissed and touched her, and I paid very close attention to the cues she was giving me, doing what got little intakes of breath or made her eyes go half-lidded, until eventually I found a motion that seemed to work well and stuck with it. I was rewarded with her legs clamping down on my hand and a low, soft moan that I was sure reached the ears of everyone in the house. As soon as she came back to her senses, she pulled me in and wrapped her arms around me like she never wanted to let me go.
Loyalty Increased: Fenn lvl 19!
Achievement Unlocked: Petite Mort
I blinked away the messages as fast as they came up and felt burning anger slowly rise within me as I listened to Fenn’s breathing slow back down to normal. I didn’t need the game’s affirmation. I didn’t need a fucking achievement pop-up. And what I really didn’t need was the reminder that the Dungeon Master’s watchful eye never left me, that I had nothing like privacy, that I was trapped in an existential nightmare that might pull the rug out from under me at any moment.
When Fenn’s hand rested gently on my stomach and she started kissing my neck, I gently pulled her hand back to me and interlaced our fingers, and whatever she thought of that, she fell into a contented sleep soon afterward. It took me quite a bit longer.
“The key to flower magic is understanding,” said Solace, changing the subject and snapping me out of my faraway thoughts. “Take a seed, plant it in the ground, nurture it as it grows, and all the while, you have to have a sense of that plant, and give it, as much as you’re able, a sense of yourself.”
“I’m not sure what that means in practical terms,” I said. “You’re saying that it’s essentially social, but with plants?” I frowned at that. My social skills were my worst skills.
“Social is a funny word,” said Solace. “I would say that it takes patience, insight, and dedication. That’s the path of true understanding.” Solace reached into one of her deep pockets and pulled out a thick, black seed, which she handed to me. “Plant this,” she said.
I looked down at the seed and turned it over once, looking at the rounded end where it had been attached to a stem of some kind. The edges of the seed were white, but the blending between black and white was imperfect. “And where do I plant it?” I asked.
“I can’t tell you that,” said Solace.
“Are you going to Mr. Miyagi me?” I asked.
“Miyagi-sensei was a very wise teacher,” said Solace with a small bow.
I stared at the short green woman with my mouth slightly open. “You’ve … seen Karate Kid? Let me guess, it was one of Uther Penndraig’s plays?”
Solace nodded. “We weren’t totally divorced from culture, back in the good old days before the Second Empire,” she said. “We accepted wanderers of all kinds into our domains. So yes, I’ve seen a very spirited version of it, put on by four enthusiastic players who stayed with us for a time. And the methods of teaching are sound.”
“I’m actually not sure that they are,” I said. “I mean, the wax on, wax off stuff seems more like it’s meant to instill mindless obedience and test patience rather than actually teach in the most succinct way possible.”
“And didn’t I say that patience was the path to understanding?” Solace asked with a smile.
I rolled my eyes. “At these words, Juniper was enlightened.” But Solace was over four hundred years old, and while the rebirth process presumably meant that she had to spend at least some time with the dexterity and senses of a newborn (TODO #432: ask about that), that still meant that she had a wealth of experience that I’d be pretty foolish to ignore.
So she wasn’t going to tell me where to plant the seed. That meant that I had to figure it out on my own. I turned the seed over in my hand again. There was basically nothing that the seed itself told me about the plant, though its size meant that it probably came from a larger plant, which meant that it would need room to put down roots and spread its leaves to take in sunlight. I was pretty sure that trying to predict a plant’s needs on the basis of what its seed looked like was really foolish, or at least unlikely to give good results. Although …
“This is a lesson on its own,” I said, holding up the seed. “Can I ask you any questions without defeating the purpose of the exercise, which is presumably about the process of discovery?”
“It’s for you to feel your way forward,” said Solace. “The feeling is important.”
I sighed at that, and began looking around the garden, both for a place that might be suitable to plant the seed, and for a Clue as to what kind of seed it was. Eventually I found a spot with flat ground and only some short grass that looked like an animal had been grazing on it (there was a fairly wide variety of animals within the bottle, though no predators). I used my hands to pull up the short grass, revealing rich, dark soil beneath it, then poked my finger in it to make a hole and dropped the seed in with the pointed tip facing up, as that was where the sprout would probably come from. When that was done, I pushed the earth back into place and stared at it.
Skill increased: Horticulture lvl 1!
“Okay?” I asked.
“I mean, what do I do now?” I asked. “Plant more seeds? Can you, I don’t know,” I made Emperor Palpatine lightning hands at the ground, “Do some mystical druid stuff?”
“That would destroy your connection,” said Solace. “Planting other seeds would also weaken the empathic link you now hopefully have with this plant. Traditionally, someone starting with flower magic would have only a single plant, branching out into more only by the time they’d gotten a plant to a second or third generation.”
I stared down at the ground. I hadn’t even gotten a skill unlock for Flower Magic, though it was entirely possible that all you needed was Horticulture. In which case …
“So I’m monogamous with this plant, which might very well die because I put it in the wrong spot, or because a worm gets it, or a fungus, or a million other things?” I asked.
“Part of building the connection is tending to it,” said Solace. “It is, in a way, better if it depends on you. You will check it, every day, sometimes twice a day, and give it the protection and guidance it needs.”
“Huh,” I replied. “Can I tend to other plants then? Not to put too fine a point on it, but can I walk around the bottle with you and learn some lessons? Actually, can I learn lessons at all about horticulture without compromising this particular connection?”
“Yes, all that should be fine,” said Solace, “So long as you form no new connections to any plants, and given that you aren’t planting them, it shouldn’t be an issue. I can take you to what needs tending. I began growing a fair amount of food, in preparation for finding you, and I thought that we might have a feast tonight.”
So I spent a few hours with Solace, moving around among her plants, helping to prune back branches, picking off dead leaves, pulling up some plants by the roots and watering others. It was nice to have a low-level skill that I could power up quickly again, but I still held a little bit of resentment toward the messages that popped up in my field of view. At the end, when I had leveled up Horticulture eleven times, she inspected one particular plant and gestured me closer.
“Here, this one is ready for harvest,” she said. She reached forward for a small bud, where overlapping pink petals had not yet spread into a flower. Her delicate green fingers touched just beneath where the bud was, and with slight frown of concentration and a pinch, she removed the bud from the plant. She held the small flower bud up to show me. “That, there, is part of the raw essence of the connection I forged with that plant,” she said. “The first time you do this, your plant will probably die.”
I looked over at the patch of dirt. “That … seems bad.”
“It is,” said Solace. “But to forge a connection and use it, that is the source of power for a flower mage. Once you know what you’re doing, you can drain only part of that connection when you snip the bud.”
I sighed. “This does not seem quick and easy,” I said. Why can’t all magics be like blood magic, easy to pick up with a few sentences of description and two minutes of thinking about it?
“No, becoming a skilled flower mage takes time,” said Solace. “Is that another thing Amaryllis left out?”
“No, she was very clear on that,” I said. “So what does this bud do? How does it do what it does?”
“I can’t answer the how,” said Solace. “I doubt there’s a soul on the plane that could. But as for the what, that depends on the connection, which depends in turn on the both of you. This?” she asked, holding up the pink bud. “A distilled connection, deep and powerful, between our two natures. For myself, the nature is usually one of hardness, or nurturing, or endurance, but there are others. This flower comes of a plant of simple stock, now dozens of generations removed from that origin, because I’ve been breeding it for quite some time. If I had to put it into words, they would be persistence, or pliability, or longing.” She squinted slightly. “I don’t know quite where that last comes from, but it’s right. And as for what it does, my sense is protection of some kind. In the past, with this one, it’s been a storm of petals that cloaked me in armor, or a red sap that stuck to my wounds, but the manifestation depends on the specific combination of our natures, and the time in which the bud is used.”
“That’s really not very helpful,” I said with a frown.
“Isn’t it?” asked Solace. “Isn’t knowing that you won’t know something helpful?”
“Given time, that seed I planted will sprout and grow, and eventually when it reaches its culmination in the form of a flower, I’ll pinch off the bud and it will die?” I asked. “And all that time and attention for a single spell whose nature I can only guess at?”
“Yes,” nodded Solace. “They are rarely useless, especially if the connection is strong, and they aren’t random, if you know your own nature, and that of the plant you stole the bud from.”
“That still leaves the question of how Vervain did it, if no one else could,” I said. “If he needed a connection to the plants, how did he have them all over the place? I mean, logically he wasn’t tending them. He just … had a knack?”
“Yes,” said Solace. “That’s as much explanation as I was ever given, along with the same warning that no one before or since has done as he’s done.”
“Hax,” I muttered. Then, when I thought about it, I realized that the answer might literally be hax. To the best of my knowledge, the game had not yet done anything that broke its own rules, nor had it fudged any dice. That didn’t mean that those things hadn’t happened, just that the game had plausible deniability. But if Vervain was a Merlin-type, and needed to be wise and mysterious with incredible powers, especially Powers as the Plot Demands, then maybe the game legitimately had hacked him to be that way. And if it hadn’t, then maybe it was something to look into. I was sure that thousands of people had the same thought before, but I was Juniper Smith, and I …
… actually had kind of a shit track record, when I really thought about it.
As we left, I looked in on the seed I had planted. The lesson that Solace had been trying to teach me was one of connection, understanding, and patience, but I wondered whether the game was trying to teach me a lesson too, by bringing Vervain to my attention once again. Whatever was being said to me, if anything, I didn’t understand it.