I spend the majority of night sitting in my room, on the lounge below a wide, bay window with fluttering white curtains. The sounds of the city keep me awake. Zyle is so unlike this; the only noise in the dead of night is an alluring lullaby of the breeze rustling tree leaves, the gentle ebb and flow of water, the mournful notes of songbirds. A small shiver trails up and down my body, cold dancing down my spine and over my shoulders. I retreat back to the large bed, wrapping myself in the soft white sheets. I stare at the wall, thinking. Why are you here, why are you here, Lady Ávra Orage of Zyle, why are you here?
I’m here to prove myself, I smirk, I’m here to make you look and stop and look again, and to make you realize...
My eyes drift closed.
The gentle sunlight strokes my eyelids until they open lethargically. My body is spread-eagled; the light dapples smoothly against my bare arms and legs. I stretch, letting out a small sigh, before dressing myself in an airy, white shift and plain sandals. After braiding multiple strands of hair back into a loose bun, I walk out of my room and turn a few corners until I reach the dining hall, where most of the other girls are waiting. My eyes sweep over each one; how odd it is to see all of the lands represented in one room. I can pick out the soft doey eyes and auburn hair of Ytria, the frosty attitude of Bascalin, the strength and poise of Elgra...just subtle nuances in each of these girls. I watch as the girl from Bascalin, Cyrilla, I believe, looks in disgust as some of the less-mannered girls dug into their breakfast in vigor. I cock my head. She interests me, this Bascalin girl, but then again, so do all of the others. I fix myself some tea, wincing at the overly sweet peach flavor. The tea in Zyle is more woody, with a hint of a deep musk. I let the flavor spread over my tongue and sit in my usual silence and sleepy stupor until we are called away.
A regal woman stands before us, surveying us with sharp hazel eyes. A stern look spreads over her face as she appraises us, eyes narrowing and lips tightening. She seems rather unimpressed, but stands up straight, giving us her undivided attention and looking at us straight on. A beautifully embellished burgundy dress stretches over her voluptuous form, smoothing the curves.
She speaks. “Welcome. My name is Madam Issera. I am the head of the royal household. I have been employed here since the princes were quite young, and I am entrusted with all the major tasks of the household. That includes preparing for all parties and other special occasions. This afternoon there will be a tea party for all of the major courtiers. This will be your first chance to impress the nobility beyond the royal family.
She pauses for a moment, as if sizing us up and testing our reactions.
“As part of the event, I am asking each of you to create a flower arrangement to be the centerpiece of one table. All of the royal gardens are at your disposal, as well as the greenhouses, which contain some of the more tropical of flowers. Your arrangement must be beautiful and unique, but it must be something else as well. It must be meaningful. I will be asking each of you why you made the arrangement you made, and I will expect an intelligent response. You have until noon to complete your arrangements. Begin.”
I stop, staring at her, while the other girls hurry on their way, intent on making their designs stand out. Madame Issera places her hands on her hips and looks me up and down.
She quirks one of her eyebrows. “Yes?”
I take out my tablet and scribble onto it. Thank you for allowing me access to the gardens. Her brows furrow. Apparently that is not what she expected to hear. She nods once, inclining her head, and throws me one last glance before walking back towards the palace.
I situate myself on a large rock, crossing my legs and closing my eyes. I breathe in the subtle scent of multiple flowers. My face screws in concentration. Foxglove…? Honeysuckle…? Larkspur…? What are the scents? I shake my head furiously.
Clear your mind, the words fan out in my thoughts, consuming all the others like the slow roll of a tidal wave. Clear it like Fýllo taught you to, think of just the curve of the glass, just the curve of the flower petals. Infinite. Beautiful.
It is a quarter past eleven when I begin to get up and go search for the flowers I have organized in my mind, their twisting blooms and curling leaves trailing in my eyes. I find them quickly; they are not rare blooms imported from tropical lands, but rather the simplest of beauties, singing their meanings in quiet streams.
I pick a only a few of each of the six flowers I’ve picked out, a sprig of white here, and a bloody bloom there. I gather them in my arms, feeling the petals trail along my bare arms. They are beautiful--you do not find these in the heavy wooded lands of Zyle; we have only the stained and faded journals of old Iatrikós to guide us in making stained glasses speckled with blossoms. Seeing all of the flowers, the harmonious way in which they work with the sun and each other--I devour it all as I make my way back to the palace, searing them into the back of my mind.
I carry them to my room, set them down gently on the dresser. I open the bag I had brought with me, and carefully take out a heavily wrapped item and slowly unwind the layers of protection, a thin sheaf at a time. It is a crystal vase, refracting tiny speckles of light across my body and the walls. I had made it a fortnight before I was chosen to come here, meticulously molding it into the elegant, delicate shape. Not wanting to be late, I begin tucking the flowers in, arranging them precisely how I want them, and appreciating the contrasts.
Once finished, I carry the vase back out to the gardens, where Madame Issera is waiting for me. She looks at me, slightly irate, once I reach her. I set the arrangement down on the table, turning it towards her. She scrutinizes it, stroking one of the petals.
“Lovely,” she says, though under her breath. “The contrast of the red and white is beautiful.”
Thank you, I write down. It took me a long time to find them. It was a journey, of sorts.
“Apt,” she responds, nodding, “for the situation at hand. Now tell me, Ávra Orage of Zyle, why have you chosen these flowers? What meaning do they have to you?”
I close my eyes and let a breath out, trying to make sense of my thoughts again. I begin writing. It takes a few minutes, but once I hand her the tablet (now cramped with my loose, flowy handwriting), I relax, pleased with my answer. I don’t show any emotion on my face, watching her eyes trail over the words.
We have a philosophy of sorts, in Zyle. We believe two forces drive the existence of this world: viaióti̱ta and katharóti̱ta. One, bloodlust, violence, raw emotion, the other, enlightenment, purity, peace. The cannot exist without each other; they are tied to each other, and at their very cores are the other force. Each element of life, every word, object, relationship, is a combination of the two. I attempted to show you the small infinity of our world, with not only the sharp juxtapositions between colors, but the individual meanings of flowers. The simple poppies are a source of opium, a weak type of morphine, which dulls the senses; it represents eternal sleep, oblivion, imagination. The lotus, on the other hand, with its fragile layers, means enlightenment. The are the other side of each other’s story, the sun to the other’s moon. I also used the feathery pomegranate flowers, which represent mature elegance, and baby’s breath, whose dainty sprigs mean innocence beyond all else. I could almost hear the stern lilting of elders and the elvish laughter of children when I plucked them from the earth. Lastly, I used white hydrangea, representative of iciness and coldness, literally meaning “you are cold to me”, and pyrus japonica, which is its counterbalance--fire.
Madame Issera finishes, and looks up at me, meeting my gaze. I cannot fathom what storms in her eyes.
I wipe the tablet down, and write something else.
Sometimes life is better explained in terms of the things it creates, rather than the scars we leave.
Madame Issera dismisses me and gives me a small smile. “Go dress yourself from the party. It will truly be a sight to behold.”
Once back in my room, I look through my wardrobe. I brought clothes from Zyle with me, but my most extravagant dress had already been used for the arrival ceremony. I furrow my brows; I have no idea what to possibly wear to a tea party. We have none in Zyle, as most people thought it frivolous and unnecessary.
I decide instead to do my hair. It’s already curled in loose waves from being in braids the entire morning while I sat in the sun, so I unwind them, brushing it out to look more presentable. Taking a couple of strands, I braid them back around the top of my skull into a neat crown, before letting them taper off down my back. A few strands fall over my face, but I decide to leave them. I take kohl and carefully apply it around my eyes, and swipe my signature dark burgundy lipstick onto my lips.
I finally turn back to the wardrobe, and my eyes flit across various light dresses until the catch onto one in particular. I bring it out. Pale, breathy seafoam, with an embroidered bodice and glass hanging from the sleeves, waist, and hem, it just brushes my knees. I slip it on and let the soft gossamer and tulle cloak my body before digging out a pair of sandals. Standing in front of the mirror, I still see myself under all the finery and fuss, my cold blue eyes and the dark attitude. My mouth catches into a small smile.
I step out into the gardens, and my breath is stolen away. I gawk slightly, eyes wide. It has been entirely transformed, tables dotting the smooth expanse, each decked with a specific lady’s flower arrangement. Pale ribbons ripple in the breeze, waiters gracefully offer guests hors d'oeuvres. Lavish crystal plates and glasses gleam on the tables, accompanied by immaculate silverware and heavily embroidered napkins.
I shake my head and make my way over to my table, off at the edge of all the festivities, rather secluded. It’s under a large weeping willow tree, and leaves flutter off like confetti. As I travel towards the table, gossip pierces my ears.
The suitor from Nyph, a criminal of all things, run off in the middle of the night…
...that Bascalin girl is certainly not fit to be here, my own daughter would be such a better fit…
I heard that the girl from Zyle cannot talk, she’s mute; what could she offer?...
I keep my cheeks from flaming and clench my jaw. I instantly feel my posture stiffen and eyes narrow intensely. However, I continue to walk towards my table. When I arrive there, I sit, greeting several people through polite nods, smiles, and waving. Refined chatter fills the air like a swarm of insects, meaningless and petty; just talk of the palace, the food, the party, all of them trying to outdo each other with who could make more extravagant statements. It’s incredibly, dull, vain, and utterly boring to me, but I manage to keep a strained smile on my face for the duration. I receive many compliments on my arrangement, however, which makes me genuinely grin.
A woman stuffed unceremoniously into a frilly pink dress, with beady eyes and a hooked nose, addresses me sharply. “So, Lady Ávra, what is your profession in Zyle?”
I work with glass, I write, the statement short and simple.
“I see.” She purses her lips, seemingly unimpressed. “I imagine your work is quite lovely…” Her tone is skeptical.
I shrug. I guess it is in the eyes of the beholder. As for my work...well, I made the vase for my centerpiece a fortnight before I came here. I also did the stained glass for the Grand Hall in the palace. But compared to other masters, I am not very experienced.
The entire table falls silent. A man who keeps twisting his goatee through his fingers speaks, eyes wide. “T-That was you? Who created the scene with the sirens on the rocks and the satyrs? It’s revered all throughout Bascalin--the creator has remained a secret.”
I nod. Murmurs break out, whispers drifting by, and all of their gazes dart and flicker over me. I simply keep my focus on my centerpiece.
“If I may ask, Lady Ávra,” a more timid looking man asks shyly, his green eyes wide as he runs his hand through his dark hair, “how do you find our city so far?”
I pause, mulling over the question, before writing down my answer. It is a sight I have never seen before; very different from my home, though I can see parts of it in the glass of the Palace every day. I seek the beautiful unknown, and there is no lovelier place to look than here.
-daoism and the yin-yang views on life were used for inspiration for my bouquet
-many words, including philosophies and names of people from Zyle, are words in Greek
-the language of flowers is used for the meanings