Brunhilda’s fingers curled around the stem of the flower, teasing out roots with patient, nimble digits. They broke free with a coaxing tug, raining faint showers of dirt onto her thighs as she knelt. The roots expanded outwards, intertwined in a pale spider web; this was what she imagined synapses must look like.
She raised the petals to her lips, inhaling their rich aroma. Even in death, they smelled more intoxicating than anything she’d ever breathed. They reminded her of her father, of the flowers he had tucked behind her mother’s ears, brushing back waves of her dark hair. They reminded her of her brother’s hands, when the alcoholic concoction of the petals and spirits had leeched into his skin, leaving them permanently smelling of the tangy flowers.
Brunhilda carefully laid the flower alongside the others in her basket, taking care not to damage the already wilting petals before pulling the linen cloth over them. The flowers were partial to sunlight – they needed to remain moist if they were to be put to use. Dry flowers crumbled and lost both their scent and taste.
Her family had passed down the recipe for generations. It was unique to them; the liqueurs strained from soaking the petals of the kolibri flowers in pure alcohol.
The petals were a vibrant blue, and were crisp to the touch, unlike the velvety fronds of the brushes they grew beneath. The flowers wove up in persistent branches through the dense foliage, hovering on the gentle breeze before her attentive eyes as she curled a finger around the stem, leaning down to breathe in the scents of the earth, rich and warm and fresh.
Lips pressed to her temple as delicately as she had kissed the flower, inhaling her scent. “Are you alright?” Aurel murmured against her ear, his brown eyes watching her agile hands. She smiled into his shoulder as she turned his chin to peck him on the lips.
“Don’t you have a council to be attending?” she reminded him softly, and watched his face contort into a grimace.
“Hummingbirds are much more interesting,” he retorted, side-stepping her question skilfully. Brunhilda chuckled, turning back to her gardening as he settled down beside and behind her, leaning back on one arm, knees hitched up.
“There are no hummingbirds this time of year.” Her fingers ran along the grove of another flower, easing it kindly from the loose dirt. It relinquished its hold reluctantly, and soon joined its fellows in her basket. She paused to brush off the dirt pooling in her lap with a deft palm.
“There’s always a hummingbird hanging around my gardens,” he mumbled into her throat. He sounded tired, his eyelids dropping as he revelled in the warmth of her skin and the midday sun across his neck. His fingers played with the hem of her shirt. “She flits around between all the flowers, and the nectar she collects is divine.”
Brunhilda laughed then, leaning back against his shoulder. His lips curled in a half-smile as she pressed her forehead into the contour of his neck. “So you like my liqueur, hmm?”
Aurel snorted softly. “Half my army is drunk on your liqueur. It’s a wonder we get any work done at all.” His finger twirled a lock of her dark hair, watching it twine around his digit. “Will you be making more?”
“Your gardens are overgrown with kolibri flowers,” she chastised, gesturing absently to the flowerbeds at her feet. “When I cut their numbers back, I’ll stop brewing it. Somehow, I don’t think you’ll be too disappointed if it takes me even another month,” she teased, and he blushed.
“It is delicious,” he admitted, reaching around her to lift the cloth laid carefully over her basket. “I can appoint someone to help you, if you’d like.”
Brunhilda shook her head, her dark hair catching. “I like the work; it gives me something to do. And speaking of things we should be doing: don’t you have a council to be leading?”
Aurel grumbled into the crown of her hair, but disengaged himself from her limbs, pulling to his feet. “I’ll see you at dinner,” he promised, and stooped to kiss her. “Love you, hummingbird.”
She grinned, watching his lolling gait as he made his way back over the field. When he was gone from sight, swallowed by the shade of the looming house in all its pale sandstone glory, Brunhilda turned back to the garden, vaguely aware of the aroma of Aurel’s warm skin mixing with her flowers. Sharp, thrumming warmth – like the sun – and serene, tangy depth merged together on her wrists and palms, and she found herself inhaling the perfume all the way through dinner.
Aurel paused from demolishing his soup, his ladle raised halfway into the air, to watch her. “Is it alright?” he asked, nodding at her nearly untouched bowl.
“It’s delicious,” Brunhilda responded with a blush, putting her wrist back down to her lap and lifting her ladle. “I just keep getting distracted.”
“By your wrists?” he inquired with a frown, before it cleared with understanding. “Do they smell like the kolibri?”
“They smell more like you, actually,” Brunhilda responded, and it was Aurel’s turn to blush. He chuckled, embarrassed, and Brunhilda took pity, changing the subject. “How was the meeting?”
“Not nearly as interesting as your company.” Brunhilda smiled around her mouthful of soup, eyes on her bowl. “Chesk brought me up-to-speed with the security patrols. Apparently Idalia’s in the Erde Realm, to see her brother.”
“The Erde Realm?” Brunhilda repeated, her brow rising. “Perhaps she’ll come pay us a visit.”
Aurel pushed his empty bowl away from him, setting his ladle aside. An attending servant removed it from the table with swift and silent hands as Aurel leaned forwards, taking her hand. His thumb slid over hers affectionately. “Adelheid mentioned she was considering whether or not to take the position as Great Mage.”
A smile tugged at Brunhilda’s lips as she leaned into him. “And would you recommend it?”
Aurel laughed. “Absolutely not. It’s hellish. People expect too much of you,” he joked. “You have to present well, and give speeches, and show up to meetings on time…”
“Oh, and you’d know all about that, wouldn’t you?” Brunhilda teases as Aurel kissed her jaw, grinning.
“That said, she’d probably be better at all this than I am.”
“You’re a wonderful Great Mage,” Brunhilda chastised, frowning softly. “Don’t belittle yourself like that.”
“Sorry, hummingbird. But you can’t deny; she’s far more suited to politics than I am. I wouldn’t know what to do with an opportunity if it fell in my lap. I’d probably make some terrible decision, put the Realm at risk – that sort of thing.”
Brunhilda chuckled. “You’re hilarious.”
“And you’re beautiful,” Aurel said sincerely. A moment of comfortable silence passed between them, shared and easy. “I’m seeing Kohle off tomorrow.”
“He’s leaving for the Stahl Realm?” Brunhilda asked, a hint of surprise entering her tone. “I thought he wasn’t leaving for another fortnight.”
“With Vilaen’s help, we finalised our father’s estate sooner than we’d intended,” Aurel said, and Brunhilda felt the faint strike of loss echo through Aurel’s chest where it leaned into her shoulder. He’d lost his father nearly a year ago now, but with Coiriuil’s recent passing, the wounds were still fresh.
“At least it’s finalised,” Brunhilda murmured softly. “How long will he stay in the Stahl Realm?”
Aurel shrugged non-committedly. “For as long as he pleases. He’ll have security, of course. And once he arrives, he’ll be appointed a guard of Stahl soldiers.”
“I thought all of the Stahl Army had been annexed into the United Forces?” Brunhilda inquired.
“Only five of their six thousand,” Aurel corrected. “Bitva Stahldritten necessitated that they retain one legion, for security and protection.”
“Adelheid mentioned to me that she was considering relinquishing her role as acting Great Mage,” Brunhilda said lightly. “Her sister is next to take the throne; that must be beneficial for Kohle, as her betrothed.”
“It will be, yes,” Aurel responded, bringing her knuckles to his lips to kiss softly. “I hope he finds happiness with her. It’s by my doing that they’re betrothed.”
“It was by Heike’s doing,” Brunhilda corrected him sternly. “Not yours. She drove you into a corner with that proposal. She wanted a shield of protection from all the noble families; that wasn’t your fault.”
“I know.” Aurel conceded quietly. “I just hope he doesn’t resent me for it. I’d hate to lose Kohle after…”
After losing Coiriuil, Brunhilda supplied silently, casting her gaze down. Aurel took in a deep breath, leaning his forehead into her soft hair.
“…since I’ve lost so much already. I just want him to be as happy with Latya as I am with you.”
“He will be,” Brunhilda assured him confidently and evenly. “And if he’s not, Kohle is responsible enough to get what he wants out of his own life, Aurel. He can take care of himself; you don’t need to fight all his battles for him. You just need to care for him, to be there for him, when he wants and needs you to be. You have to let him grow of his own accord.”
“I know.” Aurel laughed breathily. “I guess it’s just me being his big brother. But I understand what you’re saying; he needs his own space.”
Brunhilda laid a gentle hand on his face, waiting until his gaze flickered up to meet hers. “You’re an excellent brother, Aurel. And an admirable Great Mage. Don’t forget that.”
“I’m starting a new chapter,” Aurel promised. “I’m letting them all go. I can’t linger on them any longer, I know. And I’ve got so much more to look forward to now, and so much more to live for. I’ve got you.”
Brunhilda smiled, leaning forwards until her lips met his. “I love you.”
“I love you too.”