Esha contemplated the selection of blades laid out before her, each with its purpose, specifically designed to most efficiently and elegantly achieve its task. She had had them imported from Chartil; the tools of the Land were not as well suited to her desires. Oh, they were functional enough, but lacked a certain elegance, the grace of a thousand years of refinement in design. Her hand hovered over one, gold-embellished, with a winding pattern of thorny vines along the curving blade. But that scythe was more appropriate to slicing swathes of weeds than the precision Esha currently sought. Sometimes, what you wanted was a steady hand, and a single sharp cut to the heart of the matter. For that, the long-bladed scissors worked best, though they were not as ornately dressed.
She was pruning bougainvillea this early morning, the last pruning before bringing her sun-lovers inside for the autumn, winter, and spring. It had cost more than was wise, to bring Esha’s favorite plants here from warmer climes, but it was one of her few indulgences. In this little back patio, south-facing and drenched in sun, a bevy of tropical bloomers grew, and one could almost imagine oneself . . . elsewhere. Five different shades of bougainvillea cascaded from hanging baskets, a riot of pinks and reds and purples—if she blinked and blurred her vision, she could dream they covered the walls of the house in a thick tapestry, as they had her parents’ home.
The blooms had grown abundantly there, luxuriously; her father’s servants worked tea grounds and onion skins into the soil at their roots, needing to take no more care than that. Here, Esha babied the blossoms, giving them all the care that she had chosen not to give to children. The bougainvillea survived, but did not quite thrive. Most years, she lost one plant or another, and had to start afresh. It was the best that could be managed.
The jasmine did better, blooming a few times a year in starry scented bursts, which she had Serissa braid into ropes for her hair. Mandevilla thrust its crimson flowers boldly forth, and duranta dripped tiny purple blooms and bright orange berries. Hibiscus blooms lasted only a day, so each morning, she chose some to pick, floating them in a copper bowl for the pleasure of her guests. Esha’s scissors made swift work of any ailing blossoms, encouraging more growth, more flowers. Snip, snip. Darting in, then out again. With enough careful attention, Esha might manage to extend the season, force a little more beauty, a little more delight before the inevitable winter dormancy. Sometimes she worried that she pressed them too hard—but no. Sharp cuts had sliced her from her home, her family, her land. Esha had survived, and so would the flowers. Sometimes cuts were necessary.
Serissa came out to the patio, curtsying as she announced the expected visitor. “Duchess Tremontaine,” she said, her voice softer than the birds chirping overhead. Esha nodded acknowledgment, and the girl slipped back into the house, no doubt relieved to be freed from the necessity of more speech. Her prior master had been a brute, and had used her most cruelly. In two years of gentle service, Serissa had gone from absolutely mute to whispers—Esha counted that a triumph. One day, she vowed, she would teach the girl to sing.
“Duchess.” Esha bowed slightly as she placed the scissors on the table. “It is good to see you again.”
“Well, this is delightful.” Diane’s eyes were bright, taking in every aspect of the small garden area. Her gown was the palest pink, and almost too wide for the patio, given the proliferation of potted plants. But she moved through the space deftly, bending her head to drink in the rich fragrance of a gardenia, to examine the tiny green limes, heavy on a tabletop tree.
“It is my heart,” Esha said simply. The duchess would not understand, of course. “Would you take chocolate? Or tea?” She gestured toward a small tiled table where the accoutrements had been laid out. “It was very good of you to come to me here.”
Diane frowned. “Well, better here than at Tremontaine, of course. Your message sounded quite urgent, or else I would not have made the time. Events are moving quickly, running in directions I had not quite anticipated. I have much to do before tomorrow’s Council meeting.”
Diane was still startlingly lovely, of course, but she did look just the tiniest bit tired. Not that Esha would ever intimate that to her.
The duchess went on. “I regret that we cannot spend a suitable time on the usual pleasantries, but I am in the midst of some delicate negotiations . . . is there something you need from me?”
Esha shook her head. “Actually, my lady, I think I may be able to be of aid to you. I was spending time with young Lord Lionel . . .”
“Oh?” Diane raised an arch eyebrow.
“As we’d discussed. Attending a theatrical performance; deadly dull, I’m afraid. We ran into Lord Davenant, and in the course of our later conversation, our Lionel...