Mordecai plucked a beetle from the magnolia, crushed it, and sucked the juices from its head. This rejuvenating trick was one of many secrets known to the imperial gardener, but even he did not know everything the gardens hid—that the ivy conspired, the worms gossiped, or that, far beneath the ground, the magnolia’s roots knotted around a skull.
The juice buzzed in him, so he did not see the emperor’s retinue approach, nor did he hear their demands to genuflect ripple through the exhalations of two hundred and forty-three different species of plants. He merely sang to the budding petals and stroked them from their tightly-packed pink cores to where they flared, bright white at the tips.
“Bend the knee,” said a guard, and shoved him to the ground.
Mordecai turned and squinted at the intruders. Visitors were rare. And the emperor himself? Emperor Baat had been a great admirer of the gardens and had come often, full of questions and conversation, before he was killed in the coup. But never in Mordecai’s years of service had he seen the son.
“Rise,” said Emperor Se, a slight man flanked by a peacock’s tail of ostentatiously–dressed advisors.
Sparrows—which had also been partaking of the beetles and were black-eyed and manic as a result—announced danger and fled to the shelter of a nearby dogwood.
“Tomorrow night, we are fêting the Duchess of Forth,” said the advisor in gold. “We require your assistance.” Evidently believing his message had been conveyed, he said no more.
Mordecai looked helplessly toward the other members of the retinue.
A scarlet-clad minister stepped forward, bowed toward the emperor, and added, “We require your… botanical skills. The Duchess is not a friend of the empire.” He smiled tightly, and cleared his throat.
Scowling, Emperor Se broke the silence. “Poison, you daft old goat. We need poison.”
The emperor ruled unquestioned between the Moon Sea and the Jaws of Cailanth, but solitude reigned in the gardens and Mordecai’s tongue was unpracticed.
“Oh!” He looked the emperor in the eye. “Oh no, no no. I grow no poisons.”
The advisors opened their mouths in unison, but Emperor Se waved them back. His eyes narrowed. “You are telling me,” he said, eyes narrowed almost to nothingness, “there is not a single plant in my gardens that yields poison?”
Mordecai cocked his head. True, there were such plants. Tetterwort root, nerium stem… perhaps certain of the euphorbiaceae could be manipulated to yield the desired effect. But he had no experience with such things. He shrugged. “I cultivate life. Not death.”
Another guard arrived, escorting Mordecai’s assistant, who looked wild-eyed at the advisors and at Mordecai. The gold-robed and scarlet-robed ministers repeated their questions, and the assistant—a young man, with a family—bowed and trembled.
It would be done, Mordecai saw, whether or not it was a betrayal. He sighed and nodded a silent blessing at his assistant; what else could be done?
“Belladonna,” the assistant said quickly, glancing toward Mordecai, his face flushed red with relief. “Beautiful flowers, like stars, but deadly through and through. I will fetch the necessary components.” When he left, he ran.
The sparrows, oblivious again to everything but sunshine and seeds, took up their routines in fluttering groups of four and five. Mordecai watched them for a moment and shook his head.
“Your father would never have such disrespect for these sacred spaces.” He did not mean to say it. He simply said it.
Next to the frenzy of the birds, Emperor Se was a statue. “My father is in the ground, gardener,” he said finally. “And he is there because he did not understand that every person, no matter how overlooked, is like a knife at your throat.”
There was a signal—the tiniest flicker of Se’s wrist.
Mordecai never saw the guardsman’s blade.
His head rolled alongside the cobblestones, blinked twice in surprise, then stared, vision obscured by clumps of black soil clinging to the whites of the eyes. The entourage turned their backs, and apprentice gardeners hurried over and buried Mordecai without ceremony between the roots.
For weeks in the dark he was alone and afraid and his fine body crumbled like pastry.
Soon, insects crawled within him, biting, and as he learned to listen he found they carried with them greetings from others that lay dead nearby. When a root gripped his jaw, Mordecai found his voice.
“Am I in the garden?”
The skull buried beneath the magnolia answered in a resonant voice, toneless. “The patient gardener is the garden,” it said. “People exhale; we inhale. They fall; we are nourished.”
In a place so alien, still tangled dark and slow disembodiment, Mordecai was overwhelmed by a startle of recognition. “I remember your voice, Baat, my lord emperor.”
“I am no longer your emperor. My son stole my empire and planted me like a seed.”
Beneath his feet, all this time. “I did not know, Majesty.”
“Just as he stole your gardens from you.”
Mordecai hesitated. “They were never my gardens, Majesty.”
“Perhaps.” The skull clicked like a grasshopper. “Yet only you care for them.”
“Majesty, I was faithful in my duties. I have trained—”
“No.” Years after death, Baat still wielded a voice of command. “Even now, the plants sup on the blood of your assistant and your apprentices, who my falsehearted son put to the sword to hide his crimes. Se has abandoned the gardens. Listen.”
Mordecai stretched his awareness until he could hear the garden-heart pulse through roots and scurrying insects. Burning! shrieked the rhododendrons, the ivy, the gardenias. Shrivelsun! Dry-alone-dry.
“They are neglected,” said Mordecai, his words clipped with fury. Some of those plants were unique in the world, tended from generation to generation, from the hands of one gardener to the next. “Dying.”
“You are their gardener. Protect them! Give them room to grow. Give them the city.”
Roots engorged at the promise of blood.
Mordecai drew his mind back, shaken. “I swore to protect life.”
Baat laughed. Worms and centipedes fled before the vibration of his chattered mirth. “What life? The bugs you crushed? The moles you pierced?”
“I did those things in service to the gardens.”
“So serve them now. As it was with the moles: if you sow death, you will reap life. For the gardens, for your honor… for the man who was once your emperor, who loved you like a son.” The magnolia groaned above them like a ship in a storm. “Crack Se like a beetle.”
Mordecai was silent for days—the dead are patient. The garden-heart cried out to him. The roots on his skull were parched.
When he spoke, he felt the leaves turn toward him in anticipation.
“How?” he asked.
“Everything is a weapon.” Baat’s bones clattered and rolled. “Even a garden.”
Over many long years, new vines and flowers flourished in the gardens until, at a whispered word from Mordecai, they bloomed, pestilent.
Emperor Se sickened and died, heirless.
“More,” whispered Baat.
And still the gardens grew.
The empire hollowed itself. Its refugees laid it to waste in their flight. Within the skull-that-was-Baat, somewhere quiet within, something warmed, then slept, content.
But Mordecai had only begun. He felt the turmoil. Spades; axes; the constant, gnawing threat of humanity.
He nourished new shoots. Deeper roots. The imperial gardens broke through their walls and connected to parks, then to farmland grown feral and, finally, to wilderness and brambles over hard-packed battlefields.
Mordecai heard more voices then. Millions more, skulls in dirt like him, cultivating life and dreaming of extinction.