Advisory: This excerpt from my work in progress contains mature, albeit biologically fictional themes.
Roquita the flower maiden crept through the forest after dawn with her mother’s catch bag slung over her shoulder. The precious glass vials clinked as she made her way towards the river and Jym the River Dweller.
Her parents would be awake soon, off to ward off birds and keep watch over the twin baby bulbs nestled in the family bed. Roquita supposed they would miss her eventually, but that couldn’t be helped. They didn’t, wouldn’t understand how she needed to be with Jym.
When she arrived at the edge of the woods, she found him sitting on a large stone in the middle of the stream, mesmerized by the rippling current flowing around his bare feet. As usual he seemed untroubled by the icy water. She paused as a thrill of recognition and anticipation strummed in her chest.
“Hello,” she said.
He looked up, and she dropped her gaze, ashamed of the desire she knew her eyes would telegraph.
Roquita made a show of trying to find the best stones to use to navigate toward him, all the while avoiding eye contact and his intoxicating attention.
“Not that one,” he warned. His sing-speech was lightly accented with the Dwellers’ frog-like guttural tones. He pointed to a large flat rock under the current. “It looks stable, but it’s slippery with moss.”
She found another, smaller perch and tiptoed onto it before she pushed off in a dainty leap to the stone Jym occupied. He held out a pale orange hand to steady her. Roquita accepted the help and settled in next to him. He was still holding her hand when she drew her legs under herself with a glance at his face. He smiled, his full, peachy lips parting to reveal gleaming white teeth.
“Hello,” she said. With dismay, she realized she had repeated herself. Sap rushed to her face. He squeezed her hand. Firm boy fingers encased her long, slim green ones. His strong hands could easily heft these rocks, she supposed. Her gaze traveled up his arm to take in a well-defined bicep. She longed to stroke the glossy burnt-orange muscle, to explore the heat radiating off it in the cool morning air.
“Did you have any trouble?”
“Hmm?” She snapped back to reality. “No, they are still sleeping. How about you?”
Jym let out a derisive huff and released her hand.
“No one cares what I do as long as I show up for the new moon.”
Roquita’s heart sank.
“For the Naiads?”
Jym shifted with discomfort. “They must be appeased. Let’s not talk about them. Did you bring the vials?”
Relieved to change the subject, Roquita took the sack off her shoulder and placed it in her lap where she could open it. Pushing her hair behind her ear, She took out a bottle no taller than her finger and passed it to him. He uncorked the top and gave it a sniff.
“It has no odor,” he said.
She reached out for him to return it. “Mother knew my time was coming, so she sterilized them for me.”
His eyes widened. “She knew?”
“Not about you,” she said. “I’m sure she thought I’d be in our field with a practitioner, or one of those awful flower boys.”
His smile was kind. “I’m glad you’re here.”
“Me too.” She tore her gaze away from his chocolate brown eyes and replaced the bottle in the sack. Her sap was coursing through her veins willy-nilly now, making her warm despite the cool water rushing past them.
He rose in a swift, almost magical motion.
“Come, let’s sit on the bank where you’ll be more comfortable.”
Again he held out his hand for her, and she took it, marveling at the warm, dry palm as he pulled her to stand.
He scooped her up in his arms and skipped over the stones in three nimble strides, depositing her on the far bank in a mossy spot the sun’s rays were just beginning to warm.
Kneeling down before her, he smiled encouragingly. “Let me see it?”
Shyness overwhelmed her. No one but her mother and the family practitioner had seen her stem since she was a toddler. She loosened the tie on her wraparound skirt but didn’t remove it. Reaching inside the band, she pulled out her stem, carefully unfurling it until it reached a straight line from where it attached at her belly. She handed the end of the spring-green cord to him.
“Have you done this before?” Roquita asked, unsure what response she hoped to hear. While she did not want her first catch to be with someone inexperienced, the thought tortured her when she pictured him with another flower maiden.
Jym didn’t reply. Instead, he kissed the end of her stem—a gesture so intimate she flushed again.
“The color is lighter than the rest of your body,” he said.
“My grandmother was part dandelion.”
He lifted a brown eyebrow. “A little weed in your pedigree, eh? No wonder you’re so adventurous.”
She bristled. “I wouldn’t be here if I was one of those snooty hot house girls.”
His expression grew serious. “Are you ready?”
Roquita took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Yes.”
She braced herself for the pain, but he took his time. With another kiss on the end of the stem, he bared his teeth to take a tiny nibble, then he licked the end. Sap rushed from her toes and fingers towards the center of her body, building up into the stem so it began to swell. Jym looked at her with a knowing smile, and she kept his gaze as long as she dared, then closed her eyes and nodded.
When the sharp pain pierced her, her eyes flew open. Jim turned to the side to spit out the tip, and she shuddered with release as sap flowed to the fresh cut. Pleasure washed over her; she barely registered Jim holding the catch bottle under the milky fluid coming out of her stem. When his eyes lost focus, it was clear the aroma had affected him.
“Oh, that is good,” he said, breathing in deeply through his flared nostrils. He swayed a little, then caught himself from dropping the bottle.
“Hand me the cork,” he directed her, “and another bottle. You’ve got an amazing production!”
Pride infusing a shy smile, she handed him the cork and fished for another bottle in the sack next to her. It was strange, having someone hold her stem, but she liked how it felt as if she belonged to him.
After filling a third bottle, the flow finally slowed to a trickle. He pressed his fingers around the base of her stem and she gasped. With another sly smile he squeezed the stalk from root to tip, releasing the last of the sap into the bottle in an excruciatingly slow process that left her breathless with pleasure. He held the bottle to his nose and inhaled deeply, lowered his eyelids, and smiled, childlike with bliss. She feasted her eyes on him, sharing his enjoyment, not caring to hide her adoration.
Eventually, he corked the bottle and set it down next to the others. She made a little moue when he released her stem, but he kissed her and lay down next to her, entwining his hand in hers as they looked up at the morning sky through the trees.
“Thank you,” he said.
She turned to look at his beautiful orange face, stroking his smooth jaw with her free hand.
“Will you sell it, or barter for a place for us?”
He smiled with confusion. “What do you mean, ‘for us?’”
“You know, a place where we can be together.” She squeezed his hand.
“For this?” he gestured at the bottles. “We can come here if you want to do it again. I mean, that’s up to you.”
It was her turn to be confused. “I mean, for us to live. I can’t live in the river without a night bed. It’s unprotected, I’d freeze. I’m not like you, so warm.” She pushed away a growing anxiety and laid her hand on his neck, marveling at his natural heat.
Jym sat up.
“Roquita. What are you talking about?”
A wave of anxiety eclipsed her euphoria as realization dawned on her.
“I’m talking about you and me,” she said, in a deliberate cadence. “I’m talking about where we will live, now that I’ve left my family and my people, because surely,” she stressed the word, “surely you know I can’t go back to them, having given my flower to a River Dweller.“
He flinched, and she tried to backtrack. “I mean, I don’t have a problem with the Dwellers, but they would never, will never forgive it. Not if you don’t,” her voice got very quiet, “not if you don’t love me.”
Jym pulled away from her touch. “Roquita, I think we’ve had a misunderstanding.”
She swallowed back her rising panic.
“I think the world of you, and I am very, very grateful for your gift today. But I can’t, I’m not free to… I never thought it would occur to you that we would be together. Flower folk and River Dwellers don’t do that. Can’t you tell them it was one of your menfolk?”
“You mean lie to them?” Bitterness corroded her voice. “Lie to the people who will be sharing my thoughts at solstice? How would I do that?”
He tried to smile. “Can’t you sort of, hold back?”
She pushed up to lean on her elbows, leveling an indignant glare at him. “Hold back? How is that supposed to work? Do I somehow shut off my mind for a few minutes while everyone looks the other way? Should I hit my head against a rock?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t know. I’m sorry Roquita, it never occurred to me…”
Tears pricked her eyes and one overflowed onto her cheek.
He breathed in and swooned a little, and she swiped at the tear with anger-fueled violence.
“Are you getting a rush?” she shouted.
“Sorry! It’s just, your tears smell really good!”
“Oh my God. What have I done?” She got up, grabbing her mother’s bag. “You monster! I can’t believe you did this!”
“What, are you trying to tell me you didn’t enjoy it?” He gestured to her stem, which was dangling out of her skirt. She hastily tucked it back into the pocket inside her skirt with her free hand. She stifled a sob and backed away from him, righteous accusation directed fully on him.
“I hope you…“ She trailed off, at a loss for words.
“Roquita,” he began.
She turned, splashed back across the river and fled through the trees. As she neared her family’s field she slowed to a stop. She couldn’t go home now.
Tears blurred her vision. She was glad Jym wasn’t there to enjoy them. She turned toward the path leading to Abergale. She would lose herself there, and maybe find work in the soap mill. She’d heard of flower maidens doing that, cut off from the host and their families, living alone in a shack, selling their catch to strangers. She didn’t care.
She set her chin. It didn’t matter.
Nothing mattered anymore.