A Sweet Lily Braves The River
by James D’Amato
For the Black Lily of the Hollow Valley, spring was a time for worship.
Nestled behind the fertile peaks that separate the mainland from the haunted towns of the coast, the Hollow Valley is a hard day of travel over marshy lands from almost anywhere worth mentioning. Even in the dry heat of summer, the freeze of winter, and the sweet chill of autumn— the waters of the marsh are treacherous. Spring however, hosts vicious beating storms that gray the sky and flood the passes slick. Even the most spirited griffins and boldest skyships spurn flight during a Hollow Valley spring rain. One would have to be quite certain they were in need of a Lily to brave a flooding pass in spring.
Sweet didn’t mind people. After all, he sought training as a Black Lily to spend his life nurturing them. However, he had spent what he thought of as his “younger days”— despite not being halfway through his twenties— parloring in a city, where it was easy to call on him. Nowadays he couldn’t shake the feeling that too much company edged on cloying.
Folks had an imagination for the things they needed from a Lily. Sweet had a knack for entertaining imagination, but a duty to fulfill need. Without a certain distance, people called to satisfy imagination rather than necessity. So, Sweet traded service for a cabin in the valley. He still traveled to the surrounding towns by griffin most of the year, but the valley gave him spring. That suited him well.
After all, part of his Lily’s oath was to himself. One cannot live simply attending to the needs of others. So there was worship. Soft meditation on personal satisfaction expressed in raptures. Worship untangled the crossed strings strangers left to his care, it dismissed the memory of pain, and it came at the touch of a Lily– which would have been worth the time outside of its other gifts.
Sweet’s cabin was mostly a modest thing. The main room was small, made comfortable by the heat of an iron oven and a sprawl of colorful pillows and blankets. Apart from his apothecary shelf and the vase shrines to The Union and Rusalka, there was little magic in this place. All the soft frivolity of a Black Lily’s parlor with none of the ostentatious gravity.
The one exception was his spa, an indoor glade sealed with glass and full of soft moss and lush greens. Keeping water– even fresh water– in the home was risky. Sweet reasoned that a Lilly ought to be fresh and it was well suited for worship so it justified all that trouble.
Sweet was pulled from his reverie by a distinct knock at his door. Perhaps it was the worship that distracted him, but Sweet was certain that he had not heard Sadie’s thunderous warbling, which usually signaled the approach of carts and strange birds. Through the fogged glass of his spa he could make out the towering silhouette of his griffin– a snowy egret who loomed a hand above his cabin at her full height. With her head tucked under a wing to hold against the storm, she looked like an odd white tree. If his visitor hadn’t riled her, they must be on foot. That probably meant a true emergency.
With a sigh Sweet pulled himself from the warm pool he had prepared. The water was blessed with petals from Rusalka’s blooms and the fire held in hot stones. He took a moment to inhale the sweet vapors once more to find the peace to meet his client.
He dressed quickly in a light and flowing robe that had been gifted to him by a shy skyjack the previous summer; then took a moment to study himself in the small mirror given to him by his parents to celebrate the day he was marked with a Lily’s Black. With a faint click of his tongue he turned to one of the lily blooms he kept by his mirror, and favored it with a gentle kiss. He frowned as the petals faded and his cheeks, eyes, and lips swelled with the blush of pink while a spatter of magenta freckles spread across his nose. It was a shame to pull color from a bloom, but this surprise left him with little time, and pride forbade him from getting made up in front of clients.
Sweet quickly crossed the soft moss floor of his spa to the hardwood of his cabin. He tiptoed over pillows, nudging a few with his feet to shape the room into what he judged as a presentably lurid tableau. He reached the door and smoothed the creases of his robe carefully before opening it. He was met by a stranger dressed in oilskins held tight against howling rains.
“Would you be the Black Lily of the valley?” The stranger’s voice carried weary huskiness and a skyjack’s disregard for poise.
Sweet smiled. With a graceful move, he put his hand to his chest, allowing his sleeve to fall away from the tattoo on his arm: a lily rendered in graceful black lines. An unmistakable mark of his profession “I am Maestren Sweet. Please come in, I will make us tea.”
The stranger took a firm step past Sweet then awkwardly froze– save for heavy shivering. Sweet had suspected it upon hearing the stranger’s voice, but the intermittent boldness and uncertainty made it clear: this stranger was young. They could not be far beyond twenty, if they had even seen it. Maestren was the proper title; firm words and a tender touch were needed here.
“Allow me to take your coat,” said Sweet, closing the door. The stranger hastily fumbled at soaked toggles with trembling hands, before Sweet drew close to offer steady fingers.
“May I?” Sweet said without demand or judgment.
The stranger hesitated before offering a sharp nod. With that Sweet gracefully undid the toggles and pulled the oilskins away from his visitor’s shoulders.
Sweet was right: they were young. They also bore the hollow look of a person who had seen hardship well beyond their years. It could have been the wear of a spring trek through the hills, but folks didn’t call on a Black Lily through those conditions without reason.
“You may remove your boots here and set them to rest by the fire,” said Sweet. “And as for your other clothes—”
“I ain’t come for that!” the stranger said with a crack in their voice and flush to their cheeks. Sweet would have found the outburst cute had it not come from someone with eyes as hard as this stranger’s.
“I will never ask you for something you are not willing to give: but you’re soaked through the bone. I won’t have you drop dead on my floor over modesty or pride,” Sweet said with stone certainty. “There is a shade in the corner you can change behind once you have seen to your boots. You may use any of the robes that suits your fancy while we wait for your things to dry.” Sweet shifted coolly into his gentlest tones once more. The visitor nodded, all flushed cheeks and hard eyes, before setting about as they were requested.
Sweet set the kettle while the stranger changed.
“Was your journey long?” Sweet asked as he pulled an assortment of herbs from his apothecary’s pantry and began to blend. It was a gamble, but he guessed fresh root dashed with cinnamon, cloves, muddled mint, and a pod of burnt star anise. Sweet smiled over the traveler’s blend and took in the aroma. It was gorgeous, a cool and earthy thing with deep valleys and hard edges.
“The pass weren’t so rotten till I came to the valley. I come up steppin’ round creeks but the mud here could swallow a boot,” the stranger tossed drenched layers over the shade as they spoke. “Been searching for a Lily for the better part of a year though.”
As the stranger emerged from behind the shade, Sweet brought the tea to greet them. The stranger had picked a thick woven robe cut for a person twice their size. They bound it tight and held it from falling. Sweet noted that something about it matched the steel in the stranger’s eyes.
“I came following stories, mxtress. I don’t have much but I can pay—” the stranger began before Sweet cut them off.
“It’s good you’re willing to pay, but in your case we shouldn’t discuss payment before service” said Sweet.
The stranger scoffed “No wonder I ain’t find a Lily in a year if you lot do business like that. I wouldn’t last a month if I hauled for a crew before I saw coin.”
“My custom is for your sake,” said Sweet cooly but without frustration. “You faced death to come here, which means you’re not in a mind to negotiate what you can afford to lose. Now take your tea.”
The stranger swallowed some embarrassment and mouthed a thank you before accepting the mug. This stranger was brash, but it seemed they took well to instruction. Sweet smiled.
“Wait. This is hart root—” The stranger looked to Sweet, hard eyes touched with wonder.
A twinkle entered Sweet’s smile. “It’s a magnificent blend. Your cheekbones and brow will come in strong, as will your arms with a few more months on it. Tell me, did I get it sweet?”
The stranger took a moment for a tentative sip before brighting further. “Aye… So the tales are true then. Lilies can see shade through flesh?”
“Lilies see what folks want them to— if they want it loud enough,” answered Sweet, affecting his best mysterious smile.
“My apothecary back home—” the stranger began before falling into the familiar breaking rasp over the word ‘home.’ “— they took months to find what I been drinking. Is knowing hart root also part of a Lily’s work?”
“For some. Apothecary is a useful skill to have. People have trouble mending if they are trying to grow in the wrong shape,” said Sweet as he settled onto a pillow by a low table in the center of the cabin. “My skill is the parting gift of a client who passed around a year ago. She had a talent.”
The stranger stared down at Sweet, goose flesh forming on their arms. “Lumin’s eye… you took her skill?”
“I was bequeathed her skill. She couldn’t afford to lose anything while she was alive. I kept her company in the years after her wife passed.” Sweet smiled sadly “she was generous.”
The stranger blushed again, but Sweet could also see a hint of fear. It was so easy to forget that not everyone had first hand experience with Lilies. Settling in the valley had dulled some of the skills he learned travelling with his mentor. Travelling Lilies had to teach their clients what stories to believe and when to believe them. Skyjacks tended to be superstitious which made them frighten easily. This one needed to be put at ease.
“You said you came chasing stories and that you spent time on skyships which means you’ve heard your share, tell me what you know,” said Sweet as he moved to his guest’s side and took their arm to lead them somewhere to sit. The stranger flushed again, ears threatening to ignite.
Sweet allowed himself to relax a bit. This blush was for him and not just at the thought of nakedness. This meant on some level this visitor wanted to be here, even if they were nervous around touch and power.
“Em, Black Lilies are…” the stranger swallowed clearly looking to avoid saying the first things on their mind “like the Rubies of Aurum.”
Sweet giggled. “I see! Then you must be here to hire me as a diplomat.”
The stranger smiled despite themself “ah, no. Sorry. Which is not to say you couldn’t– ah probably. I just meant that– that–-”
“–That sex is a part of my work” said Sweet covering his mouth in mock scandal. How had this person served any time on a skyship and come away blushing at every mention of sex? When Sweet travelled with his mentor he encountered a few skyjacks who made him blush even after he took the black.
“Yep that would be it” the stranger almost squeeked. “But you can do things! You can see the truth, steal face, heal ill folk, save mams and babies. You have power–- Like ruby!” the stranger added defensively.
“I know you mean well, and I bear you no anger,” said Sweet, moving his hand to catch the stranger’s cheek. “You are taking pains to separate my work from the folk in the brothels you no doubt scurry past at every port. Some of the work I do is a stone’s throw from theirs and that brings me no shame. There is magic in the comfort people offer one another. They heal folk as often as I do, if you get nothing else from me, know that they are owed your respect.”
“Y–yes Maestren” said the stranger, with wide eyes. Sweet had to hold himself from moving his thumb to brush the stranger’s lip. Their time as a jack failed to make them lusty but it certainly made them fit, and their attempt to be respectful carried charm. Also, probably, something about the way they made ‘Maestren’ sound soft and husky all at once.
“The difference that I swore an oath to the dignity, health, and harmony of everyone I encounter. You will find many in life who will touch you for love or money. I will touch you because it is healthy for people to be touched,” Sweet ran his hand down the stranger’s neck and arm to hold their hand, “I can teach you to embrace the things you are ashamed to desire– because those desires bring you pleasure and pleasure is beautiful. I can teach you how to see and share love in ways that make life sweeter for every soul you meet. Sex, magic, and wisdom are tools that belong to a Black Lily, but they do not define us.”
“So em, you do… all that fer believing?” asked the stranger cautiously. Sweet nodded an encouragement. They were quite close now. “Then why do folk have to pay?”
Sweet giggled again “it’s still labor and as long as the world demands labor in exchange for the things I need to survive I must demand it. Besides, the payment I receive helps me pursue my oaths more effectively. You’re a skyjack, surely you understand. You take pay for hauling ropes to keep your ship in the sky, but doesn’t a part of you yearn to be with it?”
The stranger paused to consider, then nodded.
“That settles it. The only difference between us is you are paid to haul things taught, and I am paid to set things slack,” Sweet said, in a graceful descent to the pillows by his low table, gently pulling the stranger’s hand. “Now come to join me and let’s see if we can’t make you more comfortable.”
With that the stranger pulled back unexpectedly. “I appreciate the hospitality, Maestren. But I ain’t come here for comfort.”
Sweet was taken aback, and even flushed, “then one wonders what did bring you here.”
“I…” The stranger paused, trying to gather words that failed to come. They clutched the tea as tears threatened to break. “I was thinking I might like to die.”
The words hung heavy in the air between them.
Sweet had assumed the stranger was simply shy. Foolish. One does not risk a flooded marsh over bashfulness. Sweet did not have a taste for sorrow. It was one of the things his mentor had cautioned him over before he accepted his mark. While a Lily fosters joy, their work was not always joyful. This was not the first time he had encountered this sort of pain, not even the first from someone so young. His heart ached that anyone should face it. He knew that because of him, they did not have to face it alone. He thanked The Union for that blessing– even as he winced at the memory of the tearful farewell with his apothecary.
He prepared himself to help however his client needed.
“And you hope that I might spare you that?” Sweet asked evenly.
The stranger nodded.
Sweet felt some small relief.
“Not everyone knows when they need help and it takes courage to ask. That is to be commended,” Sweet remarked, his voice gentle, then went on more firmly: “Now that you are here, you must trust me—”
“Of course Maestren—” Sweet held up a finger.
“When I say these words they are the words of a Black Lily. They are the words you faced the flood to hear.” Sweet’s voice carried an ancient certainty. “Comfort is necessary. Everyone deserves it. Everyone needs it.”
The stranger clutched their tea, clearly struggling.
“Sit here. Let’s start with your name.”
The stranger dropped unsteadily next to Sweet, before choking out an introduction “Sim.”
Sim’s story started slowly as Sweet guided it to a gentle spill. The shape of the tale was familiar: hope, ambition, and longing called young folk into the sky. They found adventure, but it was followed by tragedy. They knew the danger but just like the sky, knowing is different than living.
With the story came sorrow, in crying fits and numb shock that stilled words. Sweet treated this with tender embraces and soft nothings while he worked his magic. A Black Lily could move feeling through the threads that connected souls. With that power they could take pain, feeling it alongside or even on behalf of a client, allowing them both to understand it. It was one of the most sacred gifts that came with a Lily’s blacks.
Here, the work was delicate. Pain was always unpleasant, but like all feelings, it was necessary. Part of Sim’s suffering had come from avoiding this story and the pain buried within. As they spoke, Sweet worked to dull the sharp edges and ebb the rushes to help Sim from shying from the labor of mending.
But as Sweet worked his way through the gnarled tangle of Sim’s grief, he found something else. It was sharp and jagged like a burr caught in wool. It had the feel of regret, which was familiar to grief. However, at every attempt to loosen it something powerful caused it to grip tighter. Left alone it would fester into a lifelong trauma. Worse yet, it was pulling Sim into the river of death.
“I hear her. All the time. That scream falling into the dark. Specially in a storm and wind,” Sim’s voice was slow, and rolled with the droning beat of rain on roof.
Sweet squeezed their hand, a quick and violent flash of memory catching Sweet off guard. He was dragged from his body to a world of dark and storm, reaching down to the icy depths of the river.
“Eris, take my hand—”
“Sometimes, in my dreams it’s not so bad.” Sweet was pulled back to the present by Sim’s voice. A blush of sweet longing shone through the thread. “Not words, but her voice. Like when I used to fall asleep as she read to me. Day and night, she calls to me.”
With that, Sweet saw the way.
He wanted to doubt himself. There was a chance this could be done the traditional way. Old fashioned talk, tenderness, and time solved most problems. A light touch with magic can make things easier, too much presents risk to both the Lily and the client. Magic has cost and some trifles with forces easier left untouched. But that burr in the thread was under the influence of something that had to be addressed. The only way to do that was deep and dangerous magic.
They needed to face the river.
“Tell me, do you have anything that belonged to Eris?” asked Sweet trying not to sound too hopeful.
There was a rush of pain that reached for Sim, but Sweet caught it, suddenly standing as though he might stay it with his body. Sim just shook their head.
Sweet held back his sigh. He calmly turned to his apothecary’s shelf to gather candles and matches. He had participated in rituals calling to the river, but never led one. Without a proper anchor, he would be forced to act against his mentor’s careful warnings, but there was no other way.
“I know what must be done,” Sweet said. He set his tools on the table with practiced calm and sat opposite Sim. “To do it, I will require your help.You are free to refuse—” Sweet’s voice almost broke. He tended to feel old especially when explaining a Lily’s work, but in the face of this task he could only feel how exceptionally young he was. Both he and Sim were children fumbling at roles meant for stronger folk. He ran a finger over the comforting lines of his Lily tattoo and pressed on.
“However, I cannot guarantee another treatment. What I offer is the safest path for you, but it will not be the safest path for me. In agreeing to perform this ritual, I am placing my trust in you. Do you understand?”
“This will not banish your pain. Grief is a burden we bear to the grave, even a Black Lily cannot change that. I believe this will make your pain easier to carry. Your full recovery will be up to you and those who love you. Do you understand?”
“This ritual will call to the river. You cannot follow Eris’ call, but I can pull her to us.” Sweet felt the confusion and hope stir in Sim. “I cannot deny death. What is done cannot be undone by my hand. But you may find peace in one another. Do you understand?”
“I… I think so, Maestren.”
Sweet sighed without bothering to hide it. “For this ritual I will ask you for a kiss. Do you feel comfortable giving one?”
Sim flushed red once more and looked away, pulling their robe tight, “Maestren… I-it will be my first.”
Sweet smiled. “That actually makes it better. A Lily’s power rests in their connection to others and how that connection is expressed. If you can give me your first kiss… If you mean it and you want it, I can harness that power to help you.”
Sim sunk into themself and Sweet could feel a hint of shame and regret starting to form. Sweet waited patiently. A Lily could protect a client from shame the same way they could protect them from pain, but not in moments like this. Consent was sacred and using magic to influence it ran against the deepest oaths the Black Lilies held.
“I… ” Sim’s voice barely rose above a whisper. Grief rushed to take them.
Sweet caught Sim’s eyes and laid a hand on their cheek after a silent inquiry. There was no magic in this, just tenderness.
“I know it was not meant for me, dear. It was stolen from you by some cruel Lumin. Spéir can be cold, but The Union is here, and she loves mercy. If you trust me with something so precious as a first kiss, I swear by my black I will steal you peace from the river.”
Sim’s hard eyes blazed into resolve as they swallowed and managed a nod. It was easy to see why the sky called to them. Sim was a jack to their soul—even the stars couldn’t change that. With Sim’s consent and the promise of a first kiss, it was time to face the cutting stone.
“Then I shall begin.”
He rose to set the room, methodically positioning the candles around the table to form a gate. As he went, he whispered a thanks to The Forest Queen for the wax of her queens, to light the darkness beyond life.
He drew a match and called on the passions of his most treasured lovers to ignite it. He lit the first candle to Rusalka, that she might clear the river of cutting stones. He lit the second to The Union, to grant them the strength to pierce the veil. He lit the third to The Maiden, so her mercy would form a shelter for young hearts. He lit the fourth to his mentor, that her wisdom might guide him through the danger ahead. He lit the fifth to himself, in trust that his own power would see them through.
At the sixth, he paused. Without a possession to act as an anchor for Eris’ spirit, he would have to offer himself. He cast a glance toward Sim. They were willful and strong, the girl must be just as bold. That boldness could be dangerous. However, if there was ever a reason for a Lily to risk the river, it was love. Love requires trust.
Sweet lit the sixth and final candle to that trust and the wick flared bright and true.
Sweet sat across from Sim once more. “I offer to the living a chance to say the words unspoken.”
With Sweet’s words the room fell away. There were no walls, there was no rain, no sound at all. All there was in the whole of Spéir were two lost souls, the light of six candles, and a Lily to guide them.
“I offer the dead a chance to steal the kiss that fate denied. I offer you both my body. With Sim’s first kiss I will open the door and with the kiss of lovers you shall close it. By your will you have sought love and by my black you shall have it.”
Then he smiled. For both their sakes taking a moment to be Sweet. Bold as they were, Sim was new to love. There were parts of them that might shy from The Union’s face and Maiden’s embrace—things that could startle at the power of a Black Lily in bloom. In case this was one of his final moments, he wanted the last person who saw him to remember his face as well as his power.
“Take the time you need. I am yours. Remember, your kiss will complete this spell. Save it for when you are ready.” Sweet felt questions start to well in Sim, but he knew no answers would make their task easier. This was the time. He stilled Sim’s lips with a finger. “When you are ready.”
Sim leaned forward and gave their kiss to the Lily. Like all first kisses it tried to say ten thousand things in an untested voice. It shattered a levy of uncertainty, fear, and insecurity with passion too fierce to ever hold grace.
Sweet focused that power and connected life to death. He felt the chill of the river at his back immediately. He had expected this to be more difficult, but at Eris’ touch he understood. She had never left Sim.
Eris had missed Sim’s hand when she fell, but her spirit held their thread firm. Together they had waded against the unceasing churn of the river for a year, their strength enough to battle death, but not enough to let go. Little wonder Sim had nearly been pulled under.
Sweet held the kiss to allow Eris time to find her way inside. Sim started to pull away, but Sweet gently pulled them closer. Best to make their first kiss a long one and allow the time to learn what they could. After all, they would only have the chance to share one with the woman they loved.
As Eris took control, the river’s chill set in. It was a slow numbing cold that cut breath and settled flesh with weight. Sweet could not feel the moment he was truly separated from himself, but when the kiss ended Sim met Eris’ eyes instead of Sweet’s.
In the river, sight and sound blurred and faded. Sweet watched the world at the end of a fading tunnel. An exchange of smiles, an embrace, the flow of tearful words all fading like dreams.
Sweet could not breathe, but he did not feel the weight of drowning. The thought of limbs, light, and breath became so heavy and the river offered gentle release, true freedom from the tangle of so many fraying strings. Margaret had not warned him, for she did not know her student would feel the river differently.
It would have been simple for Sweet to expire in the pull of the current. To deliver his final worship to Rusalka’s cool embrace. Most people were bound to the world by weight of feeling—once the body was gone, there was nothing to hold them firm.
But Sweet was a Black Lily.
He lived his life in the strings that bind spirits. As his spirit floundered without flesh, the roots of his Lily held firm. Sweet was not simply bound to the lovers awakening in the void; he was the cord. The connection that brought these souls together beyond the veil of death.
Sweet pulled away from the chill of the river into the warmth and light of Sim and Eris. He could not hear their words, but he felt their laughter. He could not feel their arms, but he shared their embrace. He was held fast by the comfort and wonder they found in one another.
In the river and in love, there was no time. No one alive could have said how long Sim and Eris took to speak their love and share their parting kiss. But even with no one to witness, we can be certain it was precious.
When Sweet returned to himself, he was overcome by the weight of the spell and the struggle of his spirit remembering how to use a body. The first thing he saw was Sim’s face hovering over his, holding an expression that was equal parts relief and sorrow.
“She’s gone, then.” Sim slumped back and away with a hollow air of finality.
“No,” replied Sweet weakly, “there is no gone. You two are bound and bonded just as you were before. You will carry that love with you to the river and beyond.”
Sweet unsteadily pushed forward to face Sim. “All that has happened is that you two are free from regret. Your unspoken love pulled against the current because it needed to bloom. Now it has and The Union is satisfied. This is a bittersweet mercy, but a mercy nonetheless.”
Sim offered a glum nod. “All that and I don’t feel much different.”
Sweet chuckled despite his exhaustion. “That’s because your heart is still broken, dear. I have done my part, the rest lies with time.”
“What good is a Lily if I still need time to mend a broken heart?” asked Sim with a grin.
“You,” grunted Sweet as he finally managed to sit up, “are alive, which is my doing. You do seem to have lost your ability to properly express gratitude, but I’m afraid I would need to bill you separately to rescue that from the river.”
Sweet peered into Sim. They had passed the maelstrom, but the way ahead was still choppy.
“As a Lily there is more that I can do, but I would have to work alongside time.” Looking now into Sim’s hard eyes, they did not seem so much younger. “You could stay.”
Sim took a long moment to think, though Sweet knew their answer before the offer was made.
“I appreciate your kindness, Maestren. I don’t have but what I carry. I’m afraid I’ll be in your debt for a good while as it be.” Sim turned to the faint gray light of the fading spring sky at the window. “Also there’s another love I got calling me.”
Sweet rolled his eyes. Skyjacks.
“Then I shall request you spend the night. The marsh and passes are treacherous enough during the day. We’ll discuss payment in the morning.”
The night was soft, offering the gentleness they both required. In the morning, terms were set over a magnificent blend, and after a tender farewell, Sweet’s egret Sadie carried Sim to port.
The sun shone through a break in the clouds as the storm gave way to bright and dewy blooms. In this lonesome peace, the Black Lily of the Hollow Valley offered a worship to the sky.
This piece is presented for free to all fans of Spéir thanks to the donors on our 2020 Worldbuilder’s Page. Please consider donating to support a good cause and unlock more rewards like this. It was inspired by Arne Parrot who wrote an absolute heartbreak of a jam for the Skyjacks theme.
Special thanks to:
- Ally Brinken
- Alexandra Rowland
- Aly Grauer
- Drew Mierzejewski
For their in put and critique. Thanks to Alexandra Rowland and @Psionexus for helping to develop “Maestren”