The Winter Palace
Dohan in Yanjing
Her roots itch - the deep prickle of mold working its way under her skin. She squirms in irritation, but the heavy, clay-ridden soil around her does not budge. Squinting up at the noonday sun, she sighs, her petals drooping. Its golden rays are relenting, scorching all living creatures beneath its gaze into submission. And while she is sturdy, she is not made to last in heat like this.
Rosethorn longs for home. For thick, dark loam surrounding whitewashed walls. For the laughter of children echoing from ivy-covered windows. For the sweet song of her lark, flying home on the cool morning breeze.
Here, in the Imperial Gardens of Dohan, even the birds are quiet beneath the sun.
The silence stretches, the passage of time marked only by the slow withering of her leaves. Her throat aches for rain, but not a single cloud mars the piercing blue sky. The world swims out of focus, and she strains for an anchor to focus her eyes.
Something thuds deep within her chest, jolting her into alertness. She frowns and waits, ears straining to listen.
There. It pounds again, a sluggish heartbeat struggling against the stillness. It stumbles and staggers, gradually picking up speed until it is a steady thrum, pouring energy back into her veins. But it does not stop, and then it is the thunder of a thousand hooves, a rider leaning over his horse’s back, pouring heavy oil over her leaves.
She screams as the hot liquid floods her lungs.
Rosethorn’s eyes fly open. Her blanket has tangled during the night, pinning her arms against her sides. She thrashes, before finally throwing off the sweat-damp fabric with one last kick. Sitting forward in her bedroll, she braces her forehead against her knees and sucks in the cool night air. Her skin burns, as if the blue pox has taken hold her once again. A shudder courses down her spine at that thought, but she shakes it out of her head. Bracing one palm against the wooden floorboards, she steadies herself for a moment and then pushes herself to her feet.
Tiny seedlings cover her chamber, sprouting from wooden structure and furniture alike. They reach out quivering, aching to console her. She bends, stroking a tiny stem, and inhales slowly, willing her heart and lungs to calm. Her magic spreads across the room, the sturdiness of wooden walls and floor rooting her back into reality. Reassured by her presence, the little plants relax, some retreating back into the wood from which they grew. The others, reveling in their newfound life, twine around columns and table legs, exploring cracks in the floor and inching out the windows.
Rosethorn shakes her head, thankful they will be departing before dawn – before her spontaneous redecoration is remarked upon too much by the servants, Mila willing.
Her thin silk robe lies across the chair at the far side of the room. She pulls it on over her tunic, glad for the gentle warmth it provides her clammy skin against the evening chill. She leaves her shoes in their neat little pile in the corner and steps into the hall, bare feet quiet against the floor.
She cracks the neighboring door open, careful not to make a sound. A pale beam of moonlight through the window illuminates Briar’s sleeping form, his limbs sprawled across his bedroll. Rosethorn exhales, shoulders sagging as the weight on her chest lightens.
Her boy is safe.
She crosses the hall, and finds Evvy snoring in her sleep, a pile of cats tucked firmly around her body. A small smile pulls at the girl’s lips, and Rosethorn’s mouth twitches upward at the sight. Evvy had been distraught that evening as they said their farewells to Parahan, her anger mirroring that which Rosethorn kept buried beneath her own calm façade. It ate away at Rosethorn to leave him here in the Imperial Palace, and every muscle in her body body ached to go back for him. But to defy the Emperor so brazenly in the heart of his own capitol would only bring a painful death, beyond what they could imagine, down upon them all. She had sworn to take care of Briar and Evvy, and so she must put her children first.
But for the moment, they are tucked safely into their beds, away from trouble, and she can breathe again.
Rosethorn slips quietly out the door, and finds no trace of guards or servants under the half moon. Keeping to the shadows of their pavilion, she circles around to the ancient pine tree growing near the back corner. She kneels in the grass, the pine bark rough against her palm, and presses her forehead to the trunk. The pine is old and comforting, wrapping its energy around her like a long lost grandfather.
She is not sure how much time passes while she sits there, breathing slowly, reveling in the feel of earth and sky against her skin.
The quiet brush of the door sliding open wakens her from her reverie. She stiffens a moment, but relaxes at the familiar footsteps. She is too tired to stand, so she will sit wait.
A warm weight settles around her shoulders and tucks itself comfortably under her chin. Briar sits down on the grass beside.
“What a wise fellow he is,” he comments, patting the pine reverently. “Four-hundred years, imagine the things he’s seen.”
“With hundreds to come, given any luck.” If the Emperor’s whim permits. She dares not voice that thought aloud, her mind returning again to that night in the rose garden. “And wiser still, for not leaving his bed when he’s due to wake before dawn.”
Briar’s eyes dart towards the ground as he fidgets. “I couldn’t sleep,” he admits finally, his voice low.
He stays quiet a moment, conflict written across his face. “You’re one to talk,” he continues finally, his voice louder as he meets her eyes. “You’ll make yourself sick out here in the cold.”
Rosethorn’s brow rises. “If only we could all sleep as peacefully as Evumeiei does with her cats.”
She frowns as Briar’s gaze drifts back towards his feet. She knows him too well not to notice when he’s doing a bad job of hiding his fear.
My dear boy, this past week has not been kind to us, has it?
Watching him a moment, Rosethorn sighs and decides she is too tired to push him tonight. She will ask him again once they are on the open road. They will all be glad to leave the palace walls behind them.
Wrapping an arm around Briar’s back, Rosethorn rests her head against his shoulder. “We should try to sleep, the both of us. Tomorrow we set out for home. If all goes well, we'll make it back within a year. ”
Briar settles the blanket around her shoulders more firmly and rests his cheek against her hair.
They sit like that until the first blush of light rises above the palace walls, dreaming of their little cottage halfway across the world.