Say it with flowers

say it with flowers

I recently received a missive from a lady from distant parts, one Clarow the Bandit Queen or somesuch title. She asked whether Port Naain knows much of the language of flowers.

Alas I am almost too embarrassed to reply. Yes our city does indeed have something that pretends to this high estate but frankly, when you investigate more closely, you find it is nothing more than a banal list of pedestrian emotions, each linked to a particular flower.

So you may dispatch a bouquet to a loved one secure in the knowledge that it will pass on some trite and clichéd message. Frankly you could have a poet write a bespoke poem, more economically and with far more opportunities for subtlety in the message. Alternatively, save your silver, gird your loins, brace yourself and tell the lady in person what you think of her.

Yet in this matter it must be admitted that the Partannese are far more advanced than we are. They give great thought not merely to the flowers but to the string that ties the bouquet together and the name on the card held in place by the string. Even so, all is not simple, nor is it straightforward. Because many use their bouquets to give a coded warning, it would not do for the message to be too easily read, nor for the particular language be too widely known. I suspect there are at least a dozen major languages each with its own particular dialects. But there are general rules. Firstly context does drive the conversation down certain set paths. Secondly various colours and a variety of flowers do have general meanings. But these are modified by other details.

Let us take the lady, sitting in her keep, besieged by some bandit lord. She receives from a distant lover a bouquet of a dozen perfect red roses. Red is a martial colour and the rose is a flower of strong emotions or actions. She is instantly warned. She checks the stems; the thorns have not been removed. This emphasises the martial, indeed warlike nature of the message. Then she looks at the name on the card. The bouquet is apparently from one Hardan Varwit. He was a famed captain but is three centuries dead, yet is still remembered for his swift and decisive actions. The card is secured to the bouquet by a fine steel wire which has ten twists. Thus the lady will know that her lover rides to her aid with one hundred and twenty lances (the twelve roses multiplied by the twists).

On the other hand, had the thorns been trimmed from the stems, had the card named as the giver someone notoriously smooth tongued, and had the cord been silk, then she would have known that her lover was attempting to subvert her enemy’s allies.

Messages can be more subtle. Let us assume that a lady receives a bunch of violets. These can mean charming simplicity, but they can also mean something wise and reliable. If the bouquet surrounds them with green leaves from the greater wood sorrel (which is a very earthy plant and is taken to represent the land) and the string attaching the card is gold in colour, a lady would expect to receive investment advice regarding a land purchase. The name on the card would be such as to let the lady know which parcel of land she should buy.

It has to be admitted that I have had my own problems caused by this language of flowers. I was asked to perform at the house of one of my favourite patrons, the Widow Handwill. She had, as usual, quite a house full. There were a large number of ladies and even a few gentlemen present. Some I knew well, some I knew in passing and some I knew not at all.

The cause of my distress was a lady called Madam Gurtreed Warrat. She was a Partannese lady who had settled in Port Naain and to be fair to her had so far lived a life of modest respectability. She had an older sister living just south of Port Naain and the two ladies were in regular touch.

Now it so happened that when Madam Warrat received her invitation, she was at a loss. She was invited as a friend of a friend, so wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. She quietly asked around her circle and they explained the level of dressing up expected and the sorts of entertainments that were provided, and it appears my name was mentioned.

In her next letter to her sister Madam Warrat mentioned the invitation and mentioned that she would be going to hear me read some of my verses. Her sister was delighted that little Gurtreed was breaking into society. The sister had heard me previously and wanted to encourage her sibling to enjoy my company.

So she sent a note into Port Naain, to one of the many flower sellers. This note specified that the flower sent should be a single perfect rose, pink in hue. The thorns should be removed from the stem, and a card should be attached with a yellow cord. The name on the card was to be Amar Blart.

I’m sure you can follow the message. A rose means the message is strong or powerful, pink is a sign of friendship, a yellow cord means happiness, fun, and all that sort of thing. The fact that the rose had lost its thorns was a sign that things would be peaceful and as for the name, Amar Blart was a famous poet in his day, prone to lively monologues. Effectively the message tells Madam Warrat to have fun and enjoy the friendly poet.

Unfortunately the order was fulfilled by the flower seller’s daughter. Her mother was unwell that day and the daughter was doing the work of two. She looked at the order and sent a rose which was redder than it was pink. She forgot to remove the thorns. There was no yellow cord so she used white. Finally because the order was from a lady, she instinctively feminised the name on the card to Amarie Blart.
Amarie Blart was the twin sister of Amar and was also a poet. Unfortunately she was also an assassin and as her calling card, would leave the heart of her victim next to the body, a dagger stuck through it. As you will already have worked out for yourselves, the red rose with thorns was martial in tone. The white cord is funereal and indicates a death. Given the name on the card the message could only be read as ‘beware, you are about to be assassinated by the poet’.

To be fair to Madam Warrat, she was no coward. She screwed up her nerve and attended the affair. There were no problems, it wasn’t until I had finished reading a couple of verses and walked through the crowd to the drinks table that things became difficult. It appears that Madam Warrat had been distracted in conversation, looked up and saw me ‘bearing down on her.’ Without a second thought she drew a long dagger from somewhere under her skirts and hurled herself at me, screaming ‘death to the assassin.’

I freely confess I was startled, and instinctively turned to see where this assassin was. This meant that the blade sliced across the front of my jacket, barely touching the skin, rather than sticking into my chest.

I reeled back, more shocked than hurt, and Madam Warrat advanced upon me. Fortunately the Widow Handwill had spotted what was going on. With a blow that would have had an Urlan farrier sergeant nodding his gruff approval, she swung her handbag and caught Madam Warrat on the side of the head, dropping her in her tracks.

When Madam Warrat recovered the full story came out. To be honest I feel that the good Widow enjoyed it more than I did. But to be fair, she had her maid go through her late husband’s wardrobe and found me another jacket to replace the one so unfortunately slashed. As we tidied up after the party she also gestured to a large bouquet of flowers she had received from one of her admirers.

“What does that bouquet tell you Tallis?”

I shook my head, “Madam, I hardly know where to begin. There must be a dozen different sorts of flowers.”

She ruffled my hair, “Nonsense, it’s easily read. I was given it by a romantic with more money than sense.”

I vaguely knew the gentleman and to be honest, it was not a bad assessment.



You’ll be delighted to know that the latest Tallis Steelyard book is written in plain English. I felt it easier to do that then to tell the tale by presenting a series of bouquets.


Instead of his usual collection of anecdotes, this time Tallis presents us with a gripping adventure. Why is Tallis ‘run out of town’ by hired ruffians? Why does a very sensible young woman want his company when plunging into unknown danger? Who or what was buried in the catacombs? And why has there been so much interest in making sure they stay dead? Also featuring flower arranging, life on the river, and a mule of notable erudition.

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