Gardens were treacherous things. However impeccably the trees were groomed, however careful gardeners were to clip hedges until no assassin could possibly conceal himself - or herself - or whichever other pronoun one might use - and however neatly spells were tucked into every corner, there was always the danger of that one hidden attacker who'd patterned the grass with a subtle curse. And there was always the possibility that plants, stubbornly, quietly alive, might be poison in a beautiful, tempting package.
But that danger lay in every room of the palace when one lay poised to inherit power. Berenene would rather risk her life getting dirt stuck under her fingernails, than risk her life holed up in her admittedly opulent rooms, in fear.
She touched one of the fragile stems before her, gentle but confident. It sprang back quickly after bending. Berenene smiled.
"I think," she said to her companion, without turning to look, "that I'm perfectly capable of tending this garden myself."
Her companion thought before speaking, as he always did. "You already know I agree with you, your highness."
"Even if you know nothing about gardens?" she said.
"Even so." A pause.
"You look like you belong here," he said, initiating conversation for, perhaps, the first time. "I already know I don't. How could I disagree?"
The corner of her lips turned up. Berenene glanced over her shoulder to take in Novice Jianghua, newly come to Namorn from the distant east, with a thousand stories buried beneath the stained fabric of his habit. He did not, indeed, seem like he belonged. He was still standing, which would be a great offense if they were in any other part of the royal properties. The knees of her hose were stained with flecks of mud; his habit was usually stained with things the cooks didn't want anyone to see until they were actually part of the meal. His hands were large, calloused with kitchen work, but what lay beneath his nails was, often, flour and not bits of crushed greenery.
His hands and habit were clean now. No one sane entered the royal properties without taking care of their appearance.
"I've seen you in your natural habitat so many times, I thought it right you should see me in mine."
Novice Jianghua looked skeptical, but wisely, did not point out that seeing her in her habitat was hardly right when there lay between them such a great disparity in power. He kneeled down by her side.
"I thought your natural habitat was on a horse, your highness, studying your country."
"One must learn to be flexible."
"Like your saplings."
Berenene turned her attention to newly sprouted seedlings, next, pale green and lying so delicate on the moist earth. The scene of a hundred different herbs mixed, sharp and cool all at once, as rich as perfume during social season evenings.
"Which of these," she asked, "would go unnoticed in most soups?"
Jianghua might know little about gardens in general--but herb gardens, as she'd guessed, he had more than a passing familiarity with. Anyone who loved his cookery magic, as he did, would learn all parts of it.
And that he barely hesitated before answering? Very much to her advantage.
He spoke, and she listened, for an hour at least. There were more than she'd expected, more than she could memorise after listening just once.
"If you name yourself after one of your herbs," said Berenene, eventually, "you will be spoilt for choice."
Jianghua smiled, in a rare, unguarded moment. "That's far in the future."
"A few, your highness."
But, just before leaving, the herbs he'd come for in hand -- for the head cook at the charity hospitals where he worked, the reason she'd given others for inviting him into her gardens -- he told her one of the possibilities. His favourite possibility.
A plant used to define boundaries, tough and hardy.
"Dedicate Gorse," said Berenene, and knew from his face that she was the first he'd confessed it to. "It would suit you."