If you are just starting, read chapter one here.

Chapter 19, Jessica

The head gardener eyed Jessica as she approached, the squat woman folding her arms and sticking out her chin, amplifying her already present resemblance to a toad. Jessica held a list in her hand of all the plant clippings she would require to add variety to the gardens of the palace.

“Yes?” huffed Hortia, standing from her position on the bench. She had been eying two of the apprentice gardeners, young girls who were weeding a flower patch and dared not pause while she was watching. Under specific instruction of the queen, Hortia was forbidden to interfere with the work of their newest addition, as the Andrean gardener would know how to best tend the plants, though Jessica knew that Hortia watched her too, making a mental list of every mistake.

“Darling,” Hortia had exclaimed a few weeks prior when Jessica was fertilizing the soil around the donoti stalk. One of the main pieces of the garden, the donoti was a plant that yielded a magnificent flower, golden with streaks of blue, and the size of a small child. It produced but one flower per year, which lasted from spring to fall. “Darling, you’ve killed it! That’s more fertilizer than is proper to be used in a season. What are they teaching in Andrean schools now, how to bring death upon a garden’s most prized plants?”

“Hortia, did the queen not instruct you not to interfere with my affairs?”

“Why yes, darling, but—”

“This is how we do it in Andrea, Hortia. Now please, leave me to work in peace.”

Jessica glared at Hortia, the heat from the sun causing sweat to trickle into her eyes and fueling her temper. The lead gardener had been right—after consulting her gardening book that night, Jessica saw that she had confused measuring cups, and the flower would be destined to die overnight. With Hortia tracking her gardening, intruding upon her and following her movements, Jessica’s credibility and ability to complete her mission would be stifled.

So Jessica had returned in secret to the donoti every night since she had overfertilized it, pouring all the Life Magic she could muster into the plant as the vast majority of energy was wicked away by vrael, coaxing the plant away from its path toward certain death.

Hortia had woken early the next morning to check on the plant and confirm it had died, and after finding it still green, had continued to return each morning until one day it did something unheard of for a donoti stalk—a second flower, even larger and more beautiful than the first, had bloomed. The queen herself had commended Jessica on her work.

When the plant failed to die, Hortia’s face hardened whenever she saw Jessica. Jessica was now left alone to her business—but she had also earned Hortia’s spite.

And now, with her list in hand, Jessica spoke directly to Hortia for the first time since the donoti had its second bloom.

“I need clippings from each of the following plants to introduce into the gardens. I’ll make my clippings myself, using Andrean technique to ensure the accelerated growth. They’re each rare, and I would be surprised if they all exist within the city confines. Can you help me find them?”

“Of course, darling,” said Hortia, her voice a tad too sweet through gritted teeth, “though surely one as skilled as yourself would already have mapped out the city’s rarities.”

“Gnarled root flowers?” asked Jessica, ignoring the quip, while Hortia consulted her memory.

The Myosi Estate, thought Jessica, just before the woman spoke.

“The Myosi Estate. There should be some around the eastern side of the house, such that the sun strikes it each morning. If you’ll be leaving the palace, however, you’ll need a guard and escort.”

“I trust you’ll make the arrangements,” said Jessica, and continued down the list, reading off each of the names. It had taken her hours to compile the list—though the odds looked bleak, there were a few members of nobility that could potentially be the survivor. At the Myosi estate, the eldest daughter was skilled in music, rumored to be able to play the harp better than most anyone in the city. That talent could potentially be an indicator, but Jessica needed a reason to leave the palace to investigate. So she had researched what plants were not present in the palace, but were available at each of the locations she needed to travel to. And knowing Hortia would have that knowledge, she compiled a list, and brought it to the head gardener as an excuse to leave.

The next morning she left with two of the palace guards—one a slender man, with a constant smile and a tendency to strike up conversation with Jessica at every turn, and another who frowned the entire trip, barely uttering grunts of approval when asked questions. Ever since entering the city and becoming weakened by the vrael, it had become harder for Jessica to sense magic, but she could still thin red wisps of Fire Magic surrounding the man, as if emanating from his coat, so faint that Jessica hadn’t noticed them at first.

Most likely a heating enchantment in the fabric, meant to keep him warm. I doubt he even knows, and I doubt it does much good here with the vrael, she thought, as they arrived at the Myosi Estate.

As Hortia had said, the gnarled root flowers were on the eastern side of the house, just under the windowsill. As she collected the flowers, Jessica peeked in through the windows, listening to the dampened sounds of a harp float out from within.

“All this walking has me famished and dreadfully tired,” said Jessica as they were preparing to leave, and the head servant of the Myosi Estate escorted them to the gate. “Could I possibly implore you for some tea? I fear I might faint.”

“It would be our pleasure, Lady Maria,” answered the servant with a low bow and a smile. “It would be an honor to have an Andrean gardener in our midst. Come, come, there is plenty for the three of you, and I shall fetch Lucy for entertainment. She’s quite skilled with the harp, and perhaps you could pass a recommendation for her to play at the palace.”

“I would be delighted to,” answered Jessica, taking the servant’s hand with her own, keeping hers slightly too limp and putting her weight on his.

They were rushed onto the patio, where fresh tea with lemon awaited, and Lucy appeared with her harp. Jessica sipped on her tea as the girl played, her fingers slipping across the harp strings and her long, blonde hair spilling over her white dress, melodic notes filling the patio and entering the garden beyond. The guards watched Lucy as well, the slender talkative one clapping to the rhythm, and the quiet one staring intensely, the muscles on his jaw strained. After a moment, his stomach growled audibly, and the head servant rushed to bring them light snacks as well, though they remained untouched.

After ten minutes of evaluation, however, Jessica frowned. The girl could play, it was true, but there was no talent or vigor that Jessica had seen in true artists. The pieces were memorized, lacking creativity, lacking vivacity. Smiling, Jessica offered the head servant her compliments, assured him that she would most definitely pass word of Lucy on to the palace for their next great feast, and was escorted by the guards to the next three estates from her list. At each, the results were similar—the talents were mediocre at best, sometimes completely falsified for political attention, and none of them had any connection to the name Cinis.

As the sun set, Jessica trudged up the path toward the palace, sidling closer to the slender guard, though his chat irked her. The other guard had taken on an unpleasant smell, most likely gained throughout the heat of the day, and she found it difficult to remain within a few paces of him.

They entered the gate, and she walked back to her quarters alone, frowning. Now her list of potential candidates was even shorter, and she had still grown no closer to finding Cinis. It was time, she decided, to start branching out from the noble families. Perhaps to comb the street artists for unusual talents, or to visit the local drinking establishments and inquire about recent urban legends.

But for that, she’d need an escort, and neither Hortia nor the queen would approve. She’d have to leave alone then, which meant she would not be able to use the gates.

And there was only one other way out of the palace.

 

****

 

Chapter 20