17 - Pertinent Document Section I

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Recorded from an excerpt of Poet and Apprentice Armed Rachella Dovetail's Travel Log

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Seeing the Peacock King's country as we have is such a rare opportunity. I never thought I'd have the chance before I started training for Arms. These days it seems like I'm traveling just about everywhere with Mister Camden. It's very exciting! As always Mister Camden makes me a little nervous, but that's probably true for everyone he interacts with. Except maybe girlfriends. Well, I don't know. If I was Camden's girlfriend, I would be very nervous. But I don't really want to think about that.

Tambor'in and I are learning together, it seems. It's like she changes every day, grows every day, even though we both stay so small. Often falconers let loose their birds and adopt another every few years, but I'm beginning to wonder if she and I will work together for longer than that. Camden says it should be decided by what the bird wants, and I agree with that.

The Peacock King was very imposing in Court! I'm glad I was posing as the baghauler while we were in audience. I didn't want to be noticed, and Camden's right. It really does work. Nobody expects anything of me or from me, which means he's a lot freer to train me. It's safer when I'm not so sharply observed. Which is funny, considering how much of a pro Jenny is at not being seen at all. I suppose that was also part of Camden's plan. He makes so many intricate plans. I can't keep track of them, and I really do try. He said different agents are better at different skills, and not to be surprised if I can't keep up with him in that regard. But that only makes me want to try harder!

I miss the Hall a lot, and I...well, I guess I did expect to. Who I really miss is our King. It's hard after you leave, and you're so used to being a student, and he's around the Hall all of the time. It's so easy to get used to our King being so near. That and all of the other Poets who are training, or who stay in the Hall...when everyone else is around, I feel a lot different. Everyone's always telling stories and jokes, singing songs. There's so much talking and so many distractions. I don't know, in a way I like being out here and away from all of that, though. I have space to think here, space to create. I'm very focused on my training right now, but if I have some spare time I might try to start drawing, or make my own set of pipes. Camden's played his violin a few times so far and I would love to accompany him.

The new boy is interesting. I haven't been able to talk with him yet, but he's cute, and he's writing right now too. His stage name is cute too: Lotus. Maybe we can talk during dinner tonight, if the King eats with us as well. I'd really like that.

It's strange to think that we're traveling and eating with the very King we're spying on. I took Camden's suggestion and didn't dwell too much on our mission today. He says the most important part is for me to act natural - the information will come to me that way. More invasive, prying methods are best tried after more training's been done. That's a relief to me, really. I have so much to pay attention to and so much to learn - knowing that I just need to behave normally takes a weight off of my shoulders.


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Recorded from an excerpt of Peacekeeper Camden Briarseal's Travel Log

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The Peacock King remains, as ever, inscrutable. At least, that is what he'd prefer to think. There is no evidence of any misdemeanors or wrongdoings. Simply enough evades and obfuscations to make it worth our while to keep more eyes on him, if that will ever be possible. He's following the same patterns, making no surprise moves. Collecting new servants and exotics as usual, though I'm sure he'd not appreciate how many of them I know of from just this visit. His border controls are as stiff as ever, giving off yet again the impression that he has much to hide.

He is cordial to myself and my two riders. I am hoping that we'll be able to see more of the inside of his Kingdom than most in our ranks tend to, what with our new position as his temporary, albeit unneeded, guards. It's amusing to watch him squirm about that. I'd say that his discomfort from so many Armed surrounding him is another small testament to his likely guilt, but the truth of the matter is that any of the public would squirm just as much from our presence. That can't be helped. They should be squirming, all told. That's just a part of life.

While riding, I'm going over our deployments. I knew before I left for this Kingdom that Gerald was here, spying now as a Poet instead of an Armed. However it wants to be labeled, it comes out to the same thing in the end. I've seen no trace of him, which is a relief. Considering that it was Gerald, I worried a small amount over whether he'd be too unsubtle for the assignment. So far he has my commendation - he didn't expect our arrival, but he has yet to give himself away to us or be revealed by us. I mark that as a sign of improvement for the boy.

Otherwise, Elric's been deployed for quite some time. He's taking more time than we expected to finish this last mission, but it is quite far out into foreign territory. He's a careful worker, too. But he is also known for getting things done expediently. Perhaps after this assignment I should request the King order him to take a break. Lords know that's the only way it'll happen - if it were left up to Elric, he'd never stop working. In any case, there's no reason for concern thus far, other than what's already been expressed. He's been sending in regular correspondences. Rather brief in detail than usual, I might note. He must be quite busy.

The Peacock King has seen fit to link a large wheeled cage to his train of wagons. To be honest it makes us nervous from time to time despite his insistence that it is merely for any game he finds along the way that he'd like to make into a pet. I wonder at the original intent of the thing, but for now wondering is all that I may be doing for some time over it. The day that King is forthcoming about anything, I just may eat my hat, provided Jhe Katherine cooks it with her special sauce.

* * *

It seems we have an ally now, and he's brought with him a new game board for us to play against the Peacock King. This marks the rare opportunity to actually engage in a contest with that monarch - not many have opened up since he and the Jhe O'Radia agreed to cease hostilities against each other's empires. In a way I look forward to the engagement, of course - and by the same token I fear that more will come of it than a simple game of pawns. Pawns often arise to become more than they seem, or show up in the least expected of places to make a mess of my endgames. Don't even get me started on rooks.

The game is already complex at the outset. Our ally is the Jhe 'hArms's errant son that we have all been asked to watch for. Apparently his idea of teenage rebellion is working himself into the Peacock King's inner Court. That aside, it seems most of Lyric's will to serve in this empire is only due to his brother Gerald's incarceration. It would transpire that Gerald's discretion is in fact due to his being chained up somewhere that's tightly warded. I should have guessed that from the outset - after all, it's not really the first time.

What makes this a blessing in disguise - and likely only Jenny will understand this particular detail - is that Gerald is being held by the one who sometimes calls himself Cade, but we all prefer to give stronger, less polite names for. Some of us have ventured some guesses as to the Peacock King's secret alliances - this is the first glimmer of real evidence of such operations that we've managed to comb up in a long time. And to think, it's been dropped into our lap by Jhe 'hArms's wayward boy. It's our happy luck that Gerald's kept with him now until we all come back for him.

I do tend to like it when all of my objectives are in one convenient place, all together.

Using the boy as a pawn is not something that I'm entirely comfortable with. He's not our agent, and is in fact someone that we've all been assigned to protect and send home. On the other hand, taking him home immediately will mean leaving Gerald for dead or worse, which neither I nor his Father would bid me do. I've even mapped out the results of such an action on a larger scale - it would be very bad for Lyric if I took him home now. In a way he is safest with the Peacock King, who will protect him from the things most dangerous to him. Except, of course, from the King himself...

This is where I arrive at the steepest impasse. Lyric has to protet himself from that man, and I know that he's not equipped to. He's already revealed some of that in his writing - there's no way for me to know how much else he's slipped around that King. I worry for him, and the worst part is that there's nothing more I can do except worry. There are always parts of an engagement that I can't control - my pieces move themselves and decide for themselves.

That he's gotten this far safely, though, helps settle my nerves on that score. He's at least aware enough to wonder over whether the Pecock King considers him to be a spy.

That, of course, is something I can only speculate. I'm not of the same opinion as Lyric, though. If the Peacock King was truly convinced that 'Lotus' was a spy, he'd never be as open around him, never leave him in positions where he was so close to him. If the Peacock King thought he was a spy, we'd never have found Lyric. No one would see nor hear from him again.

Hence another reason why I find it safe to keep Lyric with the Peacock King - as long as they remain close, that King will not pause to suspect Lyric as often. As someone he's willingly let into his confidence, Lyric is in less of a position to be accused.

Looking over this, I suppose I've merely been trying to reason out why I decided that the two pieces on this board that are in the most danger should remain in that danger - for them, and us all, to stay safe. Funny old world it is. I keep filing for vacations but the Justice keeps telling me I'd just find more trouble to resolve if I went off to relax. I can't refute it, either. I'm already waiting for the next shoe to drop, and I suspect that's really because I'm looking forward to it.

I ought to file that next vacation request. If nothing else, it'll give Jhe Katherine more paperwork to glare at.

...There's an issue that I've been pushing out of the way, I know. I don't want to write of it. Writing it means facing it, means admitting it, and in the Poet occupation, that carries a connotation of making it real. But as it happens, it has already been written - my brother Elric is now among those that have been taken by Cade. His correspondences were being forged by Cade's hand himself. I've already set aside time in this night to curse myself and my subordinates for not recognizing the forgeries for what they were. It's my surprise that Cade was able to write with Elric's quill at all - from what Lyric's writings observed, it's been tampered with. The implications of this, and of Elric's being taken, and of the Peacock King harboring Cade to further his actions against us...

I'll plot them out mentally, but I'm not putting them to paper yet. There's too fine a line between speculation and accidentally setting something down as Poetry before it's yet ready for that treatment. For now, I know to be wary of the content of any future correspondences I recieve from agents that have been too long in the field. Yet another blessing in the guise of curse.

Elric is a strong person, especially when it comes to his mind. He's never failed us in the field. I have strong confidence that this will not change in captivity.


16 - Truthtellers

...It has been a long day. I've a tent to sleep in, now. I'm staying with the Armed, writing in my journal before I sleep. The Peacock King, Ebrellen-i, has something to attend to right now, so he won't miss my presence.

That's for the better, anyway. If I'd stayed with him tonight...

Well, I guess I wouldn't have time to write this, now would I?

When I left off last time, he took me to meet the tree. Zalriadri-tchillseh-driall. I'm surprised I even remembered the name. As it is, I'm sort of guessing at the spelling. It was pretty easy to feel out, though. Somehow, it feels like it rings right. Maybe I'm just good with names and I don't know it.


She was the King's first. This is something he's waited to show me for awhile, it seems. And I wish I remembered more of the encounter. But as I took her hand and bent to kiss the back of it, I began to see things in the back of my head. It didn't overlay my vision, or I likely would have given away through my actions and distraction that something was wrong. It was like hearing something down the hall while you hold a normal conversation.

No, while the King introduced me to his first tamed spirit, his first conquest, one of his prides...I began to see my brother. And I kept that in the back of my head, let it play out while I went on with my business. I saved it until now, when I can finally lay out what happened on that other side, when I can finally look through it and pin it down.

Gerald was tired. Slumped in his chains, sore, eyes hooded and head sagging. Like the last time I saw him, except more exhausted than bored. I expected him to slip into sleep at the next moment, but the creak of a door swinging on its hinges jerked him awake. He looked up to Cade walking through the door of his cell, a cigarette in his hand, and men at his back.

Gerald's eyes followed the man, or whatever you might label Cade as, without blinking. His jaw was set firm, no expression on his face beyond focus and a growing stubborn anchoring of his will. I've seen that expression on my Father's face before. In an odd way, it gave me confidence that things would be okay. Father always gets his way. Always.

Cade hunched down, knees bending until he was looking at Gerald on his eye level. He took a puff of his cigarette, savored it for a moment, then exhaled through his teeth. A tendril of smoke managed to drift to Gerald's nose. My brother's lip coiled. He blew the smoke away from him.

The man only grinned. "I knew you'd say that." He gestured for one of his men outside the cell to come in by waving the other hand. There was an old leather whip coiled up in it. Gerald paid it no mind.

"...So." Gerald raised a nonchalant eyebrow at Cade. "I suppose you've a purpose in interrupting my beauty rest." His eye twitched as another coil of smoke brushed against his face. Cade's face brightened up from the reaction. The man walked up behind where he hunched, then dangled something over his shoulder. It shined. I saw Gerald startle at it.

It was different than a pair of handcuffs. They reminded me very much of something the Peacock King would keep. Too shiny, almost decorative. Handcuffs would be iron or steel - these were silver, maybe even platinum. Cade took them, dangled one cuff from each index finger, playing with them. His grin grew as he watched light play over the links.

The other two men walked into the cell. One of them had a ring of keys that I knew had to be the King's.

Gerald humphed. "What do you think you're going to do with that?"

Cade's eyes glittered. "I just think you need to be kept somewhere more secure, is all. The Peacock King will thank me when he comes back. If I'd left you here, likely one of his servants would have made a slip and let you escape." He reaches forward, grabbing Gerald under the chin, lifting up. "We can't have that, now can we, boy? We've only just begun to have fun. You need a better place to sleep, anyways. I can even provide you a bed." After that, it's hard to tell what happened. I saw Cade reach back and then hit Gerald in the head. I saw another of the men come up and lay another blow on him. I even saw the red jewel in Gerald's collar flash. After that, black. If what I see is dependent on my connection to Gerald, then I suppose if he's unconscious, I can't see anything.

I would be more worried now, if I didn't see more than that.

There was the slightest faded-in impression of lying on a bed, sometime after that. By the time I saw it, we were back in the carriage and I was making idle chatter with the King. I don't even remember what we spoke of. Mostly his trees, his holdings. I was feeding his ego very thoroughly. It kept him from noticing that I was troubled by something.

It was when we were making camp this evening that I finally saw anything further than that. Gerald woke up in his bed. His arms were cuffed above his head again, to the two corners of the bed there. His ankles were cuffed to the corners on the other end. He was dizzy. He was conscious of the fact that more had been done to him than mere beating. He felt like he was falling, and like he was floating at the same time. He felt like he was spinning. Like if he leaned to one side, the bed would lean with him too. He felt most of all like he should close his eyes and let himself get pulled under, just so the world would stop rocking.

He did not. He looked to the side. He felt Cade watching him. The man was a blur sometimes, sometimes shifting from one side to the other. But he was there. Sitting at a desk, a pipe to his lips now, looking up at Gerald as he wrote something with a quill. It was strange - the quill tapered to grey near its tip, and began to twist and curl in a way that didn't look natural.

Gerald's brows drew together in anger. "You stole that." The words were low and quiet, calm in a way that spoke more of rage than shouting would. Cade only smiled brightly and laid down the quill.

"Maybe its owner just forgot to say he gave it to me." He cocked his head. "Do you miss him? Or did you even hear? You Poets get the news much slower than you think you do." He tossed a hand up, waving the issue away. "No matter. You'll meet him soon enough. After you've had your stay here." He saw Gerald's anger rise. "Oh, am I not going to be able to just brush away the issue like that?" He stood in a sweeping motion that was much faster than I expected, but Gerald did. Within seconds, Cade was leaning down, inches from his face.

"Do you have a problem, Poet?" His breath stank of tobacco and chewed cloves. Gerald coughed, as much as he tried to repress the reaction.

"Where is Elric." It's not even a question. It's a statement, as heavy and cold as lead. Cade blinks.

"...Safe." He smiled. "But far away, for now. Maybe you should behave yourself, if you'd like that to change at all. Or if you want his condition to remain the same." He drug up a chair, then sat, raised an eyebrow. Inhaled from that curious long-stemmed pipe. "Some position you're in to help him, though. Do you just want a friend? You have plenty, where you'll be going. Elric might even join you there." He grinned, end of the pipe clamped between his unnervingly wide teeth.

Gerald is silent for a moment. I could see that he was thinking hard about his next choice of words. I know it had to be hard to interrogate from the position he's in. It's really hard to tell who was doing the real grilling, in fact. "Why should I believe you have any of them? We've recieved no reports to lead me to believe it." It's odd. I can tell striaght away that he was lying as I write this, even though his language didn't give it away, through his voice or his body.

Cade's eyes narrowed, his smirk grew thoughtful. "Hmph. As if your organization's reports meant anything. You all think you know what's really going on in the world." His eyes shone like a magpie who's just found a particularly alluring bit of foil. "I know what's going on, at least. You'll soon know more, of course, because of where you'll be going." He tsks, shook his head. "But...I'll let the King say goodbye to you, first." He reached down, poked his thumb against Gerald's forehead, and pressed. "Now go to sleep, darling. He'll be back to kiss you goodbye in a few days."

It was the creepiest thing I think I've ever heard in my life, coming from his mouth. Gerald jerked, his mouth opening to let out a cry. A pain sparked through his forehead, like it was being burned. Then his eyes went wide, and everything blurred. The moment hung there. Everything felt slow, loose.

Cade blew a puff of smoke into his face.

Darkness came over Gerald slowly, like being pushed down into layers of thick blankets until the covers crept over his head. Then he was out. Then he was truly asleep.

...I'm shaking. It takes me a couple of moments to calm my hand enough to keep writing. I'm not done yet. Still, I break for a few minutes, as I've been handed a mug of tea to calm my nerves.

I was right. I couldn't have written this if I'd stayed with the Peacock King. It's because he'd have felt that something was wrong. I'm too afraid now. I hear Camden telling me to calm down, firm up. It's unsettling to write things like this, but he says the only way to help is to keep focused and keep moving forward. He's right.

We're at our destination now. It didn't take as long as I expected, considering that the trip was to be for several days. It turns out that the King expects to stay here for at least a day and a half. Once we arrived, he left the wagon and proceeded alone, telling me to stay with our guards for the night.  I wasn't sure of what to reply to him. Before I could think of anything, the girl with the falcon looked up to the King.

"Sire? May Tambor'in hunt on these lands?" It was the first time I'd heard her speak. The King looked down at the girl. She was so much smaller than him. She was smaller than me, even. Her falcon was even petite. Her voice, though, was clear and confident, even though it was low in volume.

He smiled, something I didn't quite expect. His demeanor had turned more serious once we reached the valley. "Tambor'in, is it? Surely she may hunt the lands outside of the Valley of Hespiredes. But do not allow her to fly into it or you will lose her. The same goes for any other animal of yours." He looked up to the whole group. "You may hunt here for what is needed, though my supply wagon is open to you as well." He then turned and left.

Camden looked down to the girl with the falcon. He tilted his head. "Rachella? Is there something the King has said that bothers you?" The girl looked back up to him.

"Tambor'in wouldn't leave me, even flying out that far." She frowns as Camden makes a knowing smile.

"He did not mean to imply that you were inadequate in training your bird, Rachella. He only meant to warn you of the properties of that valley." He points out to it. "There are no wild animals in there. Perhaps you have not been taught the story yet...though I would find that strange." His voice is a bit quieter at that last part, and his eyes skirt over to me. I wonder if I'm not exactly welcome to hear this conversation, but it would look awkward to leave, now. And...there's really no one else to go to besides stinky horse drivers or the few servants the King brought with him. They don't even have any fashion sense.

Rachella's eyes widen just a little as she seems to realize something. "Animals who enter the valley as well? I thought only the animals that were already in it went...strange." She looks down at her falcon, her face growing a little more horrified at the thoughts going through her head. I can't blame her. What Camden said is starting to fully become clear to me. Every animal that is ever in the valley, not just the ones who were there when Hespiredes was tamed. Every bird that flies over. Every deer that wanders in. Every one of them, tame and obedient, all the wild driven out.

The King can have the Valley. I don't want to go in there. I don't want to see what's become of the fauna inside. Rachella is thinking the same thing, I can tell. Maybe we all are.

Camden sighs, then shakes his head, fingers splayed above the wire rims of his glasses. "Let's make camp, girls." It takes me a moment to realize that he's not referring to me as well.

...Then he looks back over his shoulder at me as they begin to walk to their horses, and I realize that he is.

Rachella and I found firewood together in a nearby stand of trees. She giggled as I grunted and gasped at the manual labor. "Silly boy. I'm tinier than you and I can carry twice as much."

I sigh, trying to blow a strand of hair from my eyes and failing miserably. "That's because you're a girl."

She giggled, amber eyes merrily shining. "Oh? And what's that supposed to mean, boy?"

I lean down, wince at the ache growing in my back, and pick up another small limb. "It means that girls are smarter and stronger than any boy ever was, and if I say otherwise, both my sisters will come and beat me." She giggles so hard at that that she begins to drop sticks.

We start to build the fire together, but soon Camden walks over, looks at what we're doing, and begins to tsk. "No, not like that. Like this." He begins to stack the sticks and limbs in a more orderly manner than we had. I see Rachella paying close attention...and blushing very hard from the correction. I suppose fire-building must be one of her duties.  She's so very studious about following his instructions, though.

Camden looks up at me, his eyes narrowing a bit as he focuses through his glasses. "You've been with us for awhile now. Why are you staying here? The King's carriage has many more comforts than we can offer you." His eyes flick over my clothing as he says this. I realize that my traveler's garb isn't exactly the rugged wear that's expected for trail living. It's really just high fashion with a serviceable touch. I only smile and shrug.

"I like your company. I'm sorry, should I leave? I can, if you'd like."

"No!" Rachella cuts in before Camden can voice his reply. She shrinks down a little under his gaze, looking sheepish. "I'm sorry sir, I just like him, is all." Again, she looks so nervous at his approval.

Camden just gives a solemn nod. "It's fine. I just didn't want to be wasting the boy's time." His eyes flick up to my face again, and linger there. My eyes lock with his, and I realize I can't break away, even though I'd like to try. It's different than being held by the Peacock King's gaze. It's more like being held by my Dad's.

I realize that thought is only making me look nervous, while being inspected by an Armed, at that. Camden blinks, seems to make some sort of recognition, then shakes it off. He proffers his hand. "My apologies. I've been a bit rude, and I've yet to even give my name to you formally." I shake his hand. He has a firm grip. I try to match it, but something tells me this is the handshake he gives to the ladies. "My line is Briarseal. I give you leave to call me by my given name, Camden." His eyes flick up to mine. He still holds my hand. I realize it's my turn to reply.

I'm unfamiliar with these customs. Before now, I always met Armed through my family ties, so the introductions and rituals were completely different. I've witnessed them in the sense that we're engaging in now, but not particpated directly. And all that is just to put off facing this particularly uncomfortable reality: I have to give my name to a man of the Law, and the name I'm currently using in service to the Peacock King is a lie.

I try to put on as much confidence and soak myself in as much calm as I can. Acting is difficult, though, when it comes to someone who has no trouble sniffing out the Truth in me. "I am called Lotus." It's the Truth, still. And I see no trouble pass over the Armed's face. Relief passes over me.

...Still, he doesn't release my hand.

"I see." He nods, propping up his glasses on his nose with his other hand. "Tell me...Lotus. Is that also the name your Father calls you?" His eyes are on me again. I couldn't escape them before they hooked me.

"...No." The Truth is always the best choice with him. For one, it makes him release my hand, though I've no idea why. He takes a step back, as do I. We regard each other. Rachella watches. I have the barest sense that she's tensing, possibly staying fixed on a weapon she has concealed.

"...I must apologize." Camden dusts off his gloves as he speaks. "I don't remember what your Father introduced you as, when we first met. It was years ago, and you were young. I almost didn't realize who you were." He sees me wilt as he goes on.

I forgot. I forgot that Father had introduced Camden to all of us when I was younger. I only remembered seeing him around, on the business of the Law. If I had realized, I'd have tried to hide my face better with my makeup. What I have on is enough to not make the King think of my resemblance to my Father, but for someone who'd already met me...

The barest hint of a smile lights on his face. "Oh. Oh yes. Lyric. I remember now, because one of your brothers is named Lute. In fact, I believe your Father introduced you two as a matched pair, like Gerald and Gerude." The smile tugs stronger at the corner of his mouth.

I sigh.

He gestures for me to sit beside the fire that he's about to start. "My, boy. You sure are in a lot of trouble."  He only chuckles at the despair that spreads across my face at that proclamation.

I dust off the ground a bit, then settle, looking back at Camden.  He's reaching into one of the pouches hanging from his belt, likely for flint and steel.  Unless he means to teach Rachella to make fire by rubbing two sticks together or something rustic like that.  I feel a whump on the ground next to me, then look over to see that the pack-bearer, or student, or whatever, has decided to take up a seat next to me.  She smiles at me, eyes wide and bright.  I feel her gauntleted hand thump a few times between my shoulders.  "Cheer up," she says.  "If it were the end of the world, we'd still have the best view.  That's what the King always tells me."

I see Camden go still, then look up at Rachella with an expression I've not seen on his face yet.  It glues the girl in place.  She pales.  His eyes narrow.  She bows her head.

"I beg pardon, Sire.  My tongue has run out before my head."  She sounds as solemn as a grave.

His eyes only narrow farther. "Pray next time you make a slip like that, Rachella, that it once again isn't around anyone who is any danger to you." She and I both wince at that, though obviously for different reasons.

I pull up my knees and wrap my arms around them. I feel cold, even though the air is warm tonight. King, huh? Not the Peacock King, of course. I feel them both looking at me, the two pairs of eyes so intent that it almost warms me up. Time to state the obvious, I guess. I know what it is that Rachella managed to leak. "I guess you mean the Poet King. It sounds like something he would say. My Father always said he was more kind in tough situations than anyone else had a right to be." I sigh. I don't understand how much trouble I'm in, by now. I understand that I'm in a lot of it, yes. I just...it's all mixing together now. There's no point in even keeping track by now, is there? Everything's a bigger mess by the moment. By the time another hour passes, the world will have come crashing down on my shoulders. I lean my head down against my knees. It is the end of the world, and the view is awful. I wish I had someone like the Poet King to comfort me. The closest I have to someone like that is Ebrellen-i, and he doesn't comfort me. He just makes me nervous that he'll try to do more than comfort.

I feel a hand on my shoulder just as I realize I'm crying. I don't look up. I know it's Rachella's anyways. I just close my eyes and try to take it as something to calm me. I'm so tired. I wish I were home, but at the same time I'm afraid to. I'm so afraid of everything.

The air feels warm, and I hear crackling from the newborn fire.  I feel another whump on the ground at my other side. Did Camden sit down? It certainly feels like someone very tall is next to me. It's quiet for a few more moments. Then, Camden's clear voice cuts through the void. "Your Father has asked that any Armed or Poet notify him if we find any hint of your whereabouts. I have to send in notice to him when I make my next report. It should be a week until that happens." He's quiet for a few more moments, letting that sink in. "It gives you time to run, if you want. If I were you, I wouldn't. Don't make it worse for your Father and yourself. We can escort you home, if you like." He's as kind as Rachella is, just more adult and more grounded. My panic almost ebbs.

Go home with him? End everything, as if it's so easy? I really wish I could. I try to say something, open my mouth, and something catches in my throat before I can speak. I choke on the word, whatever it was going to be, and then the tears come back. I sob into my knees, fall apart right there. Just go home? Everything could be simple? Everything's waiting to come down around my ears - that was the signal for it all to drop.

Neither says anything. Rachella's hand rubs at my back. I wish I could call it a comfort. But nothing's a comfort now. It's not their fault. They couldn't know. I hear Camden sigh, a sound from someone who is trying to be polite and deal with other people's children. I know he's doing the best he can, really. He's tried to be nice.

"If it helps, I'll tell him myself where you were and why, if you tell me why you came to this place, Lyric." He sounds so open. He really does want to help me. He really cares. "It can't be that bad, can it? You ran out of places to run. You didn't understand what you were getting into. You're not legally bound to the Peacock King, you know. As a citizen of your Kingdom, we can easily get you out of any entanglements. Even any sorceries, if things have progressed that far."

That's the last straw. I curl up as tight as I can, trying to block out his voice, Rachella's touch, everything. Block out the world. Just for a moment. Then I let out a heave that's half exhale, half sob, and uncurl. I wipe my face and look up at Camden for just a moment. Then I reach into the sash of my robe and pull out the box.

"I...I'm sorry, I didn't know how to tell you, and I'm so afraid by now..." I can feel Camden's confused scrutiny as I open the box. My cigarettes. "I don't know what to do anymore. I...please don't do something rash. Please let me explain first." I find the bullet. I hold it up. Rachella gasps. Camden jerks, some startled noise barking out of his throat. "I can feel my brother through this. Gerald. He left his guns to me when he got captured here. The Peacock King is threatening to cause a war if he doesn't...there's a man who has him now...the animism's still in the cell...the King suspects I'm a spy and I don't...I don't...I just don't know what to do!" I hurl myself into Camden's arms. He's silent. Looking back, I'm sure I could have chosen something less awkward to do to him at that moment. It's not important, now. What's important is that once that's out, I start to explain what's happened so far that I know. I even pull out my journal and show what I've written today.

After that...after that, it got even more awkward. I've never been ordered to write. I've never been watched as I do so. Rachella would look over my shoulder, goad me on when I got stuck in parts, when I didn't want to go any further. I recounted Gerald's ordeal as far as I could feel it out. I pressed on, no matter how much Cade scared me. I wrote it all out, every bit that I could, and then just pressed the journal into Rachella's hands, paying no heed to whatever of myself I'd exposed in my writings. I didn't care what secrets I shouldn't have given away. My brother was far more important than my dignity.

Camden stared down at the paper, frowning at certain parts, looking thoughtful at others. He looked alarmed at one or two parts, then startled. He called me over to the part he was reading, pointed to a passage. "This. Lyric. Are you sure you heard him say this? It was that name?"

I look down at what I had written, scanning the paragraph for context. "...Yes. Gerald asked where Elric was. I remember it as if I was still there." I see Rachella's head snap up at the name. "...Who is Elric?"

Camden puts his hand up for quiet, waves me away again. He keeps scanning the journal. "...Thank you. I'll ask the rest of my questions later. You've done a good job," he mutters absently. I only look back at him with confusion, and then Rachella taps my shoulder.

"Camden is Elric's brother," she whispers into my ear. My heart sinks a little. I turn towards her.

"Do you know anything about that Cade guy? What's his story?" I whisper back to her.

She clenches her jaw, her brow furrowing. "He's...notorious, Lyric. What you wrote that I saw over your shoulder...it's very typical of him. If he's keeping Gerald at the Palace until the Peacock King returns...that would be to everyone's advantage. He's taken our people before and we've seen no signs of them again." Her face is very, very troubled, like there's a dark cloud over it.

"...Your people?" The sick feeling in my stomach starts to pulse and ache in worse and worse ways.

"...Poets and Armed, Lyric. He kidnaps them. Other people too. But he hunts...us." She looks to the side. "I might as well get it out: I'm training to bear Arms. I've been a Poet for years. Camden's Poet too, but of course he's famed for his high position as an Armed."  She sees me nod. I understand. I had some of it figured out already, in fact.

Camden finishes with my journal then, and looks up at me. "Lyric." He gestures for me to come sit by him. I settle next to him. He has the journal open on the ground. It's near the beginning of our trip. "I'm going to assume you have the events before the journey written down as well. It certainly reads as if you do." He leans back, looks up at the sky. It's faded to black now, stars dotting the canvas from horizon to horizon. "You're keeping them in a safe place?" The lilt of his voice at the end of that sentence suggests that if I'm not, I'm about to get a lecture and a slap on the wrist, no matter whether or not I'm one of his apprentices. I nod promptly. He relaxes, his shoulders lowering just a sliver. "See to it that you keep doing so. Because you're going to keep writing." He looks to my face to see my reaction.

It's just a blink. I hadn't really thought about it. There wasn't really a question for me, just like apparently there's none for Camden. Of course I'll keep writing. Why would I stop now? I tilt my head at him. He smiles.

"Good. Now, I know you must be keeping your brother's Arms in a safe place now, or else I'd see a finger or two missing from you. They'd enforce that themselves. There's really only one safety precaution that calls for my time now." He points down at a later passage, that took place in the wagon.

I blush, and say nothing in reply.

He nods. "Don't get near him. He is smarter than you, and he will find you out, Jhe Lotus." He doesn't bat an eye at using my psuedonym, even though he sees me wince at the point made from it. "Don't...dissemble about it. It is a blessing that you have gotten as close to him as you have." His head moves just barely, and he smiles. "Jenny, how many spies have been planted successfully under the Jherent o'Monarch's wings?" He looks to the side, in the brush. I follow his gaze, as does Rachella, who appears somewhat embarassed that she's been caught off her guard, even by an ally.

The archer grins, stepping through the tall grass until she drops to her knees beside Camden in a careless flop. She's still crunching a bite from an apple that's in her hand. "Way back, I remember we got a kid in there to tell us a few things, but I think it was just a visiting diplomat's munchkin. Managed to sneak into a room without permission, thought he was raiding a pantry. So other than a mishap with a child barely out of toddling years, we've had no inside men remain inside men. There have been a few short duties done, alike to Gerald's mission, where the spy has been a nearly invisible observer. A few of those have been successful." She shrugs, the heavy mantle on her shoulders shifting oddly with the motion. She adjusts it, then decides to start unbuckling it and remove it entirely.

Camden observes her with just a hint of dryness. "But as for agents posing as members of his own Court, there have been no successes?" He raises an eyebrow. She grins a little, then just gives a nod and a flip of her hair. He shakes his head and sighs. "How long have you been sitting in the brush, listening to all of this? Enough to know everything that's happening, I'm sure." He sounds weary, but completely unsurprised to have been spied on by his...is she supposed to be his student? I don't think she really is. I think that I'm not the only actor in this group.

She only grins longer, then turns her attention to her boots, which she begins unlacing. They go all the way up to her thighs, so it looks like something that could be quite an ordeal. She sighs between her teeth, the exhalation becoming a low whistle. "Maybe Gerald should stick to other missions, and I should have been the one to go in for a full-silence covert operation. He's loyal and has a good work effort, but always did fumble a bit when it came to the subtleties of the game." Her tone grows sad near the end of the sentence. Myself, I feel a pang, and look away. Rachella lays a hand on my shoulder.

"...Yes. There is that to attend to." Camden looks over at me. "Lyric, I'm afraid I won't be able to notify your Father of your whereabouts. We can't leave this area with the situation as it is. We cannot leave Gerald where he is now, nor allow him to be taken elsewhere. You are going to have to continue working for the Jherent o'Monarch as our spy. It's not something that I am comfortable planning, but to do otherwise would endanger too many. And if an incident arises...none will be left to give aid to your friend animism." He peers into the night, eyes focusing on something distant, something not there at all, really. His fingers pluck at a twig lying on the ground as he ponders. "...We're playing chess, now. This is no gun-flashing raid, no extermination sweep. You're going to have to follow instructions. You're going to have to act on intuition when no instructions arrive. In other words, Lyric, you must continue acting as you have been up until now. I'm doing everything short of drafting you." He closes his eyes then, looking a little sickened. I look worse, I'm sure.

No, he couldn't just ride me back home and escort me back to my old, responsibility-free life. That life is long gone now. I don't think I'll ever have it back.

I miss it, all the same.

* * *

Rachella is the one that guides me away and helps me settle down. "Would you like to sleep outside of the tent? It gets all stuffy in there, you know. I love sleeping under the stars, myself. Have you ever done that?" She catches my hand. I look at her. Her eyes are lit up at the prospect. She's so excited. So bright.

I can't help but be caught up by something like that.

We settle down in sleeping bags, staring up at the sky. My eyes trace over the stars, not bothering to track the constellations that I recognize, not bothering to navigate. I need something to get lost in now. Rachella knew that.

She's looking over at me, meanwhile. "...Lyric? How long have you been on the road, alone?"

I blink and keep watching the stars overhead. From this position, with this view, and while talking to this person, the question doesn't put me on the defensive like it usually would. I think over it. "I was sixteen when I left. I'm twenty now. So...it's been almost five years by this point." I frown a little, considering the silver and white pinpoints above me. "I don't feel that much older. I don't think about the time that much, to be honest." I see her nod out of the corner of my eye.

"It feels like that for me, and most of the others I've talked with. Time seems to move slower than it passes. I wonder why that is." She lets out a long sigh, then holds a hand up, a long blade of grass pinched between two fingers. "I miss the days in the Academy, sometimes. I felt so young then. I still feel young now...but now it doesn't feel so genuine. It feels like I should be old, you know?" I nod in reply.

The silence stretches on for awhile, comfortable and warm, like a padding for us both. When she breaks it, it's not so much an abrupt thing as just a natural end. "How long have you been writing?"

I laugh softly. "Several days?" I feel her surprise. "I've written before, of course, when I had to. For the little schooling that I got. I'd keep journals every now and then. Nothing important. I think this trip's diary has been the first thing of any substance that I've ever written and then showed to anyone else. It felt strange for him to read it. Mister Camden." I sigh. "I'm just doing what I can while Gerald can't. I'm sure he'll do better, when he's out." She's silent for awhile after that. I wonder if something's wrong, and start to turn towards her. Before my gaze turns entirely from the stars, she speaks.

"I think...maybe what you do will be more than enough, Lyric. What's been written already, and what you'll write, to come. Maybe that will be enough. Did you..." She turns towards me. I look at her, finally. "Did you ever think about that?"

"Think about what?"

She opens her mouth, then hesitates. She's thinking about something very hard. I'm just not sure what. "Gerald...when did he become a Poet?" Her face gets a tinge of concern when I sigh so heavily.

"That was right before I left. I...I forget, really. If I meant to leave already, and then high-tailed it when he left for the Academy, or if that was the final straw. I don't remember the final straw, anymore. I just remember I had to clear out of there or I'd never be able to stand myself." I see her face, see her reaction to that, and then think I should look back up at the stars again. They're known for their beauty. They're not known for the kind of compassion that makes my stomach go numb when I start to recieve it. "I felt better when I was gone."

I feel her hand on my shoulder. It's that little nudge that makes me realize that the stars are blurring in my sight, and the tears are probably showing. "Why?" She could be asking why I left, or why I felt better. Really, though, they both come down to the same thing.

"It just felt like there wasn't any room for me there anymore, and if I wanted space, I'd have to leave. I could say that he was too good, that I couldn't reach that bar he'd raised, he and my other siblings. And I think it's true. But it...just, everyone, the way they were...I didn't even have enough room to breathe." I take a deep breath and sigh. "Everything was so clear right before I left. I had to get out. Even if Gerald was leaving anyways, because of where he was going, he'd be even more there, you know? Once I left it was all alright. I was almost too busy trying to keep my neck safe, and keep my head afloat, to really think too much about it at the time...but at least I could breathe out there. At least I was on my own. It meant a lot, and I couldn't tell you how. It just did." When there's no reply, I start to worry. Maybe I've let too mch spill out. Maybe what I'd never told anyone should have remained that way. Then I feel her stir, just a little. Hear her shift in her sleeping bag.

"...I know how you feel."

...Maybe I've been waiting a little too long to hear that said.

There's nothing said after that, but nothing really needed to be. We just watched the stars together. Sometime during that, we fell asleep, and there was peace.


15 - Vision Through Iron and Stone

I walk to where the King's caravan is waiting, my things all bundled up on my back or hanging from pouches. I've returned to my traveler's garb, with a few alterations - I'm wearing one of the robes the King gave me underneath the sashes and belts. The bullet is in my prized case of cigarettes. I thought it would be the most natural thing for me to be seen keeping safe.


The caravan is a simple affair - a supply wagon, a wagon for the King to ride in, and another wagon that appears to be an ornate wheeled cage. It earns a few eyebrow raises from Camden and his fellows, but the King merely says that it's for any 'interesting specimens of game' he may find along the way. I'm sure that had the Armeds not showed up with no warning, that would be Faun's wagon. He is obviously not coming on this ride, now.

In fact, the King takes me aside for a moment to explain exactly that.

"They won't understand what I do within my own borders, Lotus. You know that. It's best not to tell them of the animism or of the Poet. I'm trying to settle things peaceably with the spy, after all - best to not get the Law involved, and get him in trouble." I agree with him, sincerity very present in my voice. After that, we climb into his wagon and begin our journey.

The King's wagon has large windows, perfect for enjoying the view of the countryside. It's magnificent, green rolling hills dotted with small trees, blue sky with torn-paper perfect white clouds scattered across its face. I realize I haven't been getting outside enough, even with the magnificent gardens in the Palace. Or perhaps anyone who was experiencing this view would think the same.

I realize the King's been watching me all this time. I blink. "Yes, Sire?" I'm getting better at that. I actually got the 'sire' right the first time.

He smiles. "Nothing important. I just like to be there when someone sees this region of my lands for the first time."

I nod, then let my eyes explore outside the window again. I watch Camden and the two girls with him ride ahead. The archer, Jenny, is alert, Camden watching her closely. She scouts the horizon for any dangers, even though I'm sure there are none for this King within his Kingdom. Training is training, though.

...Really, the most danger for him is sitting in the wagon beside him, being watched by him. I wonder if that's why I was taken along - so that the Peacock King wouldn't be leaving behind a suspected spy to break out his captive Poet.

I watch the other girl, the one who was carrying the other Armeds' things. Her horse is loaded more than the others. I suppose she's just there as a servant of sorts. I wonder if she stays with the Armed in their Hall, or if she's just been hired for the trip. She reaches an arm up. A falcon plunges down and alights on her arm, where a leather guard is strapped on. I let out a little gasp.

"Mm?" The Peacock King leans down to look out of my window over my shoulder. "...Ahh. What a fine bird!" We both watch her look it in the eyes for a moment, as if they were communicating. Then, timed smoothly with the stride of her horse, she launches it back into the air. I realize that the King and I are both engrossed in this display of falconry. The girl urges her horse faster, keeping pace with the bird's flight above them.

"Is she using it as a lookout?" I squint up. The falcon's high above us now.

"Clever. She's got quite some skill - she makes it look so easy." I think I hear wistfulness in the King's voice. Odd.

"You could do the same, couldn't you? You're known for your gifts with birds more than any other type of animal."

He looks thoughtful, then his eyes scan the sky again. "It's...not the same."

"Ah." I settle back into my seat. I can't see the bird anymore; it's nothing but a dot in the sky now. "My King...I didn't ask before, I'm sorry. Where are we going?" I watch him settle back as well in his seat across from me. He folds his hands in his lap, lets his shoulders sink into the cushions behind him.

"We've a few stops on our way, but our destination is a garden of mine that is very precious to me. I must visit it often to ensure that everything there is as it should be." He sees me tilt my head to the side, smiles at the gesture. "It is named the Valley of Hespiredes. Perhaps you've heard stories of it. It is my treasure."

I nod. "I've heard a tale or two, my King." He waits for me to speak, expecting something. I'm pretty sure I know what. "I've heard some stories about the apples there, but I never understood them. Is there something special about them?" I watch his face grow thoughtful, but if he feels sadness, it's well-hidden.

"...There is something special in that valley, Lotus, but apples have no part of it." He'll say no more after that, telling me to wait until we arrive, so that I might see for myself in person. I leave the questions at that. The day's ride is long, and I fall asleep before it's even halfway done - at noon I'm in a sound doze.

* * *

Gerald's almost asleep, too, in his cell. It takes me a moment to realize that's where I am. Do dreams take me directly to him, now that I carry the bullet with me? I suppose I can try and ask the Guns later. For now, I'd like to talk to my brother. I open my mouth to greet him, as he's yet to notice me in his haze. Before I can get any sound out, though, he turns his head sharply to the side, facing the bars. I see shock hit his face for a split-second before it twists into a rictus of disgust and hatred.


feel the smile of the visitor outside before I look up and see it - the expression is just that potent. He seems to project himself to the whole room, as if he were rubbing his elbows into every corner. I have trouble seeing him clearly at first - maybe it's the fact that I'm visiting while dreaming, but I can see energy even better now, and the aura surrounding him is dark and smoky, and ripples the light around it like a skim of oil across the surface of a broth. I try squinting, then realize I can edge closer with some semblance of safety. I'm a dream here, and I think the rest of the scene is really taking place. I can see them, but they can't see me. It's a shame. Gerald looks like he could use someone to soothe his nerves.

His visitor crosses his arms, his worn brown leather jacket creasing at the elbows. He's wearing black gloves, which look new in contrast. For some reason this fact sets me on edge. Maybe it's because I can almost smell the leather on his hands. He wears worn grey jeans, and his boots look old enough to be my Father's first pair. There's pouches hanging from his belt, odd lumps in them, some with strange letters branded into them. He doesn't wear a hat, which I almost expect - he has the air of a cowboy, though not of an Armed. He doesn't...have the touch of the Law on him. I'd say it was quite the opposite, but...

...Honestly, it's a little uncomfortable for me to talk about him. Describing him makes me feel greasy.

His face isn't worth noting, in a way. He just looks so normal, except for the touch of delighted malice to his eyes and in the corners of his mouth. There's stubble on his chin, and his brown hair is short, with the look of a haircut that's been self-applied. Needless to say, he's not wearing any makeup to compensate for the deep shadows under his eyes. I don't think he's even heard of the concept of a facial wash. In fact, I'm starting to wonder if he even washes.

That smell can't be Gerald.

Speaking of Gerald...I guess he's met this man, because no one could hate a person on sight to the degree that Gerald obviously does without knowing them from a previous encounter. I start to worry. This man looks like he could mean no good for any person in the world.

He chuckles, the sound echoing too long after he stops. "Why, Gerald. Fancy meeting you down here. Did your Father put you in here? Have you been a bad boy? You sure look like you've been grounded."

Gerald doesn't speak. He just spits. It doesn't make it outside of the bars - the collar flashes and jerks at his neck before he can aim it properly. I'm impressed that he tried to write Poetry from spit, though.

The man snorts, then plucks out an old rust-colored cigarette from a pocket in his jacket. "Poor aim, Armed. Your Father would be ashamed, if he weren't already. Look at you. Pathetic. To think I've chased you down across several countries, and then don't even have to round you up. All the work's been done for me." He tosses a hand up, then lights the cigarette with a flick of his wrist. "Takes the fun out of it, really. I'll have to send in a complaint to the King." He closes his eyes, smiles. Tsks. "We'll have so much fun while he's out on his trip, Gerald."

Gerald narrows his eyes. "You'll get nothing from me but wounds and reasons to beg forgiveness for your sins."

The man makes a cluck of surprise, like a scoff almost. "Such sure words. If you allowed your Arms to be taken from you then you're almost not worth dealing with. The only reason I'm bothering is because I think I might find it in me to enjoy it." He takes a step back, inhaling a drag on his cigarette, then looks to the side. "Now, where is the spare..." He runs his fingers along the bricks in the wall. I realize he's looking for a key to the cell.

...I don't want to be stuck in here with him, dream or no. I start thinking of something to do that can make him stay out, away from me and my brother.

Gerald lets out a puff of a sigh, a rather nonchalant gesture for someone who's in his position. "What are you doing in a place like this, Cade? The question applies much more to you than to me." He sounds so blase about it - weary and worn, like this is a routine for him. Maybe it is, at that. I don't know much at all about Gerald's history as an Armed. He did it for a long time before he trained to be a Poet too. It's altogether too likely that he's run across this man many times.

...Now, I may enjoy making fun of my brother, but I do hold his skills in very high regard, and always have. He's been something to measure myself against...and I've always been found wanting afterwards. Maybe that's made it hard for me, maybe it screwed me up a little - but the point still stands. Gerald is very skilled and highly regarded as an Armed. If this man has managed to avoid being brought in by my brother up until now, he has to be clever, and very dangerous.

Suddenly, my hair is standing on end even more than it was before.

Cade smiles at the question. "The Peacock King is a very hospitable monarch. I always find a little something in his cupboards to nibble on, and he's always happy to extend the kindness of a scrap or two when my boys and I have been found wanting." His grin grows, stretching wider than I would think that his jaw would allow it to. "You'll learn all about it, soon."

Gerald raises an eyebrow. I have to hand it to him. Now that he's recovered from the shock of seeing his old nemesis here, he's calm and cool. "Really? I would find it strange that the Peacock King wouldn't take issue with you touching his goods without permission. He's so possessive, after all. Are you sure you have permission to even be in here?" It's amazing. He's so laid back about it that I have to blink to make sure he doesn't have his own cigarette.

...The guest seems taken aback. He also seems very uncomfortable with the feeling of being on the accused end. I guess that isn't something that's common for him. "...He'll let me into there. He'll likely request the honor before I even have a chance to bridge the matter to him. He respects me. He likes seeing me work."

Gerald barks a short, low laugh. "Then why are you not so confident that you'll start on it without his supervision? That's always like you, Cade - inventing your own importance where you have none."

There's suddenly a loud clanging in the cell - Cade's kicked the bars, fury hanging on his face like wet clothes on a line. "Don't mouth off to me, boy. I can still hurt you from out here. I've done it to enough of your kind here." His grin grows. "I don't have to touch you to make you suffer. Just ask your sister." He raises an eyebrow as Gerald jerks at his manacles. I made the same jump as my brother did. Which sister? When? How could someone like this get to one of my sisters?

"Liar." Gerald's eyes narrow again.

Cade's chuckle climbs up through the cell, winding and shrill. "Oh? Really? How can you be so sure? Should I tell you a story about it, so you can judge for yourself?" His grin should be slipping off of the side of his cheek now. I want to help it along that track. I wonder if I can slug him through the bars, even though I'm only dreaming. I think it's worth a try.

...I swear Gerald glances up at me to warn me off of it. "Don't bother. I know all my sisters' stories. Can't avoid them when everyone tries that angle to rile me up. You haven't touched either. You'd smell better if you had."

Cade's lip curls up at the rebuttal. "Cute. Little Judge's son thinks he's so clever." He hunkers down and leans forward so that he's at Gerald's eye level, almost pressing up to the bars. "Words won't get you out of there. They'll just make your screaming more articulate."

Gerald brightens up. "You're expanding your vocabulary? That's wonderful. It'll make it more of a challenge to be condescending towards you." He pauses. "That means talking down to a person, Cade. Do you want to write it down in your little notebook where you keep the names of the whores who didn't give you the clap?"

The man's face is frozen in shock, that stupid grin still welded into his cheeks while anger grows in his eyes. The cigarette burns down to his finger, burns into the glove, and he throws it down with a curse. I jump, then feel the floor buckle under me.

Everything shakes. I cry out, try to grab for Gerald, and then plummet down into spiralling darkness.

* * *

I'm moving back and forth. I open my eyes. The Peacock King is shaking me by the shoulders. His eyes are full of concern.

"Lotus? Are you alright?"

I blink, rub my forehead, and let myself fade back into the waking world. I feel more tired now than when I fell asleep. I squint at the King. "M'fine...was I makin' noises? How long was I out?"

The King tsks and shakes his head. "You're such a loud sleeper. I'll have to make a note of that." He sighs, looking out the window. "You've been out for under an hour. You're missing beautiful scenery. It's barely noon yet and I've no one to talk to while you doze."

I hunch down under the nagging assault. "My apologies, sire." I stretch, unable to hold in a yawn. What was I dreaming of? ...Wait, I don't want to be awake. I want to sleep again to check back on my brother.

'Worry not about him. Ye can see him later, when you're not directly under the eyes of the King.'

'Foolish boy. Don't you know not to go sneaking around while you're being watched?'

I sigh, then look sheepish as the King raises an eyebrow at me for it.

'It matters not, anyway. That knave that stalks our Armed is no match for him, even with shackles thrown into the bargain. If ye worry over it now, you're wasting your energy and what little wit ye have to ye.'

I try to keep that close to heart as I look over the hills, my eyes tracing the path of a far-off river. It would be nice to be able to stop worrying about my brother for a few hours in the day. His Guns likely are right - though I have a little trouble putting trust in them. They may know Gerald well, but they're not exactly always good-natured towards him.


...Gods. I miss him. I even miss home. And I know I won't see both for quite a long time.

The Peacock King tilts his head as he watches me. "You look wistful while your mind is out wandering my landscape. Why are you so sad?" There's that odd concern again - the kind that I can't judge to be sincere or just another way of testing me.

I look back to him. "I miss home." It's the truth. I can't deny it, and I give away nothing by saying it but my own humanity. "I miss my family. But I came here to make it on my own, so I can't just go crawling back to them."

He nods, a knowing smile on his face. "Ahhh. I understand. I've done my own travels, to find myself..." He looks out into the distance. His eyes lose their focus for a moment, and he frowns.

"Is something wrong?"

He shakes his head, drawing himself out of the half-trance. His frown is still there, though. He's thinking. Maybe even worrying. "Nothing. We all make mistakes when we're young. Most of the time it's not worth remembering anyways." He perks up, looking back to me. "While you're still young, try not to do anything that's worth forgetting. You'll have more to look back on fondly." He reaches to the side then, opening a compartment that holds a much-welcomed tea set on a tray. He picks through different leaves. "I've a tyrotyrle that keeps the water hot until I need it. Convenient, yes?" He sounds so primly content. "Which blend would you prefer? I don't have any partiality at this moment."

I look through his teas and pick a blend. What's welcome about this, besides the tea, is that it segues into a chain of conversations about teas, blends, where they come from, our favorite leaves, and the memories attached to them. It's nice to talk about these things. I start forgetting just how deep I am into things I don't like or don't understand.

...The Peacock King is also very charming, and pleasant to talk with. I start to forget that it is him, in fact. He stops being the King and starts to become a companion. Something that abruptly hits me when I trip over yet another 'Sire'.

He sighs exasperatedly, then puts his hand over mine. It feels so warm in contrast to the feel of the cold metal bands of his rings laying against my skin. "Lotus. For gods' sakes. Just call me Ebrellin-i." He closes his eyes, shakes his head. "I've use for titles in my Court, even for in my personal time, but I've no use for them here, right now. And I tire of hearing you trip on them, though I know you try not to." He smiles at me. "I've called you by your name from the start, after all, right? I can't see why you can't have mine." His eyes catch me. I don't even feel the stab of guilt that I think I should have felt from his honesty in contrast to me having given him a fake name.

I just sit there, silent, caught.

The brush of something at my cheek almost snaps me out of it. A finger. He traces down to the line of my jaw, then draws it back.

For a few moments, I have no idea what to say. Then the spell breaks, and I look away, a blush climbing up my cheeks. Landscape. The landscape is very nice. The rolling hills are very green. I hear a chuckle across from me, and then the Peacock King pats my hand again.

No. Ebrellin-i.

I look back over to him, my eyes wide. He only smiles, a look less sinister and more open than I'm used to.

After that...

Well, later on, we had to clean up the tea. I had accidentally knocked it into his lap. Which...well, nothing really happened because of that, I guess. I was really sorry about ruining his clothes and wasting the tea and making a mess, but he was pretty nice about it, considering all of what had happened.

Oh godsouls. Did I remember to wipe off his lipstick when we got out of the carriage? Or did Camden and the others see? That might make all of our conversations mean something different than I thought--

No, I remember now, the Peacock King wiped it off for me himself. I mean Ebrellen-i. ...I'm not sure if having a name for him makes anything less complicated, you know. Everything feels a lot more complicated now.

I...anyways, nothing really important happened after that, and I wish I hadn't written it down. After that we made a stop, and that was...I can't remember very well, I wasn't paying much attention. We visited a river that didn't have any tributaries that ran to the Palace. The King wanted to pay the dryad there a visit, to make sure there was nothing amiss. He was very polite to her. She was overjoyed to see him, actually. It was a little strange to watch. I'm not used to girls looking so...

...So happy while being so obedient.

Maybe it's just because of my sisters. They're nothing like that. But even the female slaves I've met and spoken with, done makeup and hair for - there's a kind of feigned obedience. If it ever became like joy, there was still sadness to it. It's hard to describe. It's painful to discuss. I watched her, though. She fawned over him. Paid heed to his every movement and glance. Even the waters of the river slid back anytime the hem of his robe drifted close enough to get wet.

[Oh yes. When we stopped, I stepped out and he changed robes, since I ruined the other one. I hope that didn't look bad. ...I really hope that didn't look bad.]

And that leads us up to now, I guess. A tense ride in the carriage to the next stop, a grove of trees. He's been talking to the biggest one there for awhile. The dryad of it, I mean. She has a long name that I can't remember. I've had long enough to record the events up until now. There was a blank journal in my room in the desk. It matched the stationery kept there. It's been convenient - I have something to record our progress in, and it just looks like I'm an avid diary-writer. Otherwise, I'd feel like writing this often made me stick out like a sore thumb...

...Which is equally awkward, considering that I just looked up and saw both Camden and the baggage-carrier writing in their own journals. Jenny is watering the horses at a stream not far from where we sit. Well, I suppose it's natural to record their goings-on. The baggage-girl is probably seeing some things worth remembering during this trip, and Camden's on official business.

How am I going to talk to Camden about Gerald? Should I? I haven't even had a chance to properly greet him. I'm a little nervous to. He's open and friendly, but so official-looking in his military coat. And he's very tall, and I'm very not. Jenny isn't as imposing, but still makes me a little nervous. The other girl is the only one that doesn't make me want to shy back. She looks nice and non-threatening. And her bird is really neat. 

I look up. They're watching the King's approach. I realize he's walking towards me.

Time to put away my quill for now.