12 - Rolling In Golden Apples

The Peacock King dismisses himself afterwards, which relieves me. I don't like him hovering around me too long. His pets may enjoy his presence, but all it does for me is make me afraid I'll become one.

I just have more room to think when he's not around. I feel his eyes look at me when he's with me, physically creeping along my skin. There's a pressure against my head that could be his own mind, for all I know. I don't understand these things. Gerald understands these things.

...I need to talk to someone who doesn't have an angle. Or who possibly has the right one. What did I think yesterday? That maybe Faun would have real answers.

...Well, it's my job to train him, so it won't look amiss if I'm seen around his cell. Perhaps I should go spend some time with him now. Some time with bars between us, unfortunately - the Peacock King has the only key to his cell that I know of. At least I remember the way to it, unlike Gerald's. I walk through the gardens again, and then into the Palace proper, and then down through the easy maze of halls that lead to where he cages his pets that are still being trained. I'm about to arrive at his cell when I stop.

Someone else is here. I listen.

"...You'll do best to just give in to him, and save yourself the trouble, my pet. Fight too hard and you might hurt yourself. And hurting yourself...isn't that the last thing you want?" The Peacock King's voice eases over me, echoing softly from down the hall and around the corner. I stop.

I keep listening.

"All of your animals depend on you to keep yourself safe, Faun-doe." I hear a slump and the soft rattle of chains. That name, that pet-name. It sucks the strength right out of him. "I can keep you safest. If you'd only let me." Such a coddling tone. He's almost begging the animism.

"The animals of my forest are safest in the wild, in their home. As I am them and they are me, the same therefore applies to me. I understand your offer, but decline it. If that is all that you have detained me for, then release me now, for I will never enter your agreement. It is my duty to live free and unharmed so that they will persist and thrive. I can willingly do naught but my duty - to do else would change what I am." He pauses. His tone was slow and even, composed and calm as a stone statue. Now it is tinged with a biting remorse. "As it was with Hespiredes. You know her well, I imagine."

The Peacock King, to my surprise, is quiet. He's so tense that I can feel the air ring with it.

"Hespiredes is nothing compared to what you are. I saved her out of the compassion of my heart." ...Sincerity is never something I expect to come from him, and when it does, it rocks me completely off balance.

"Aye, that is so, and for keeping her and hers safe we are quite grateful, and never start to think otherwise, Peacock King. But I am not her, as you have said. It is you who tries to make me become her--"

Faun's voice halts so suddenly that my heart races. For a moment, I think he might have fallen over dead. I hear the slightest rustling of fabric.

"...Move, and I cut your throat with my nails." The Peacock King's voice eases through gritted teeth.

"Bruise me, and I'll slit your wrist with my own." Faun's, very muffled. I imagine the King's hand clamped around his throat.

I hear a word I cannot repeat in writing. I just feel it would do bad things to record it. It's a spell-word, that is what I do know. A word of power that causes another flump and chain-rattle, this one more final. I wonder how long Faun will be unconscious. Knocking him out by such a method would be the only way that the King could extricate himself from the cell, at that point, without having the animism hurt him or having the animism get hurt.

I hear the door creak. I make a move, very quietly, holding even my thoughts to be silent. I go farther up the hall, away from this cell. After a few moments, I begin to walk back towards the cell, making no efforts to hide my approach. I act completely normal for myself - and the best part about that, dear friends, is that my usual self in this Kingdom has a touch of nervousness to him anyways!

I see the Peacock King just after he's come around the corner of the cell. He's brushing off his robes, his face clouded, brow furrowed. He's in a sulk, all things told. His head snaps up as he senses my approach. He's off his game - he would have detected me much earlier in any other situation.

"My liege? Are you feeling alright? You look upset." I am bright, perky, aware, and concerned. I see him frown as he thinks, see his eyes skate to the side in contemplation.

"...Lotus. Are you here to see the animism? He's taken a rest." He waves me towards the cell. "Here. If you want to visit with him, go ahead. Observation is nevertheless important. I'll be back to unlock the cell later." I nod, letting him conduct me through the bars. He closes the door, locks it, and starts to make his leave.

Lucky me that he's in such a mood. He put me in here just so I'd get out of his hair.

[He just locked me into a cell to get me out of the way? ...I think I just proved one of Gerald's arguments about the Peacock King's methods of rule.]

I watch the monarch depart, my eyes skating over the scale design cascading down the back of his robe. It traps me for a second. There's so much splendor in it. Then I shake myself out of it. "...Sir? --Sire. You could do with a pot of tea, I think." He pauses just a moment.

"...Yes. Yes I could, Lotus. Thank you." And with that, he departs.

I look over the animism-in-a-coma that is currently keeping me company in this cell. I sigh, then sit. I have naught to do but wait, now. I don't want to nudge him. I like having all of my appendages firmly attached to my body. Instead, I simply watch him. It's a peaceful pasttime. He's quiet, and not trying to kill me. And he's...

...He's nice to watch, even though he's so still. Or maybe that's what makes it so nice. I can look at all the little details this way, scrutinize deeply without feeling awkward because I'm staring so hard. He has such soft skin. His proportions are small - thin, but rounded. His face is like a fox's. And his hair...it's not really cut or styled, you would say, but the shaggy nature of it, the short unruly mane, is very charming. He has a kind of perfection I don't see in humans, being in the family of animisms. But it's not the sort of beauty that the nymphs possess. Theirs, for whatever reason, almost seems catered to humans. It's too perfect, too alluring - they set out to seduce humans as much as humans set out to seduce them. But Faun's beauty, and the beauty of all animisms, I suspect, is not for humans. It's not for anyone, really. Perhaps it is all their own.

I like that. I like appreciating a beauty that isn't catered to me. It's simply there, purposeless, natural. In all my travels...I've seen others sell themselves, seen people buy them. I've sold myself, seen others buy me. In so many ways I have seen this throughout the bit of the world I've traveled. It is a relief to look upon someone who is never for sale.

It's just as entrancing as the Peacock King's tail-mark, for me. Perhaps even moreso. I know I forget myself in it, because the next thing I remember is a golden eye staring straight into my own with mild curiosity.

"What are you looking at, human?" The animism's voice is soft, with no tone of curiosity to it. I blink. I don't give him an answer. I can't, really. He makes a face that might, in better lighting, be a fraction of a smile. "I've seen your type at zoos, you know. Staring at the tigers. That's the face that's made right before someone leans in too close to the bars."

I duck away before his claws give me a haircut that goes beneath the scalp. I'm a few feet farther away from him now, my heart racing, my breaths drawing in and out in rapid succession. He smiles at me, something like a dog's grin. I expect his tongue to start hanging out of his mouth. Once the shock dies off a little, I realize something - right now is the first time I've seen Faun happy in the time I've known him.

He laughs, something a little bark-ish, a little clumsy, but less rehearsed than the laughter he's made before. "You're funny. I like you. You'd make a good chewing toy for cubs."

"I...thanks." I take my compliments whenever they're given, whatever the heck they may actually mean.

He sits up, gathering himself, looking a bit uneasy with the clothing the Peacock King has given him. "I suppose you're here for more training? I'm not really in the mood to dance. You should let me scratch you up instead - it'll be very convincing for your employer."

I shake my head, sitting back down and settling in my spot. It's far enough from Faun that he can't reach me with the chains if I drop my guard again. "He'll be away for awhile. He thinks you'll be unconscious when he comes again. So he doesn't expect me to train - just to observe. Truth be told, he put me in here to get me out of the way. What you two said to each other upset him very much."

Faun's eyebrows draw together slightly and he looks at me with a little more intensity. Like he's considering the potential of an unknown predator. "You heard that? Without him knowing?" He looks to the side, his face growing blank. A neutral expression of a person who's thinking too deeply to be bothered to put effort into coaching his face. "Perhaps it truly does upset him...interesting." His eyes flash back to me. "Why is it your concern?"

I put my hands in front of me, splaying my fingers together, staring at them as I look at the weaving line in between my knuckles. "...Before I heard that, I was coming to ask you about the Peacock King, Faun. The Poet has been imprisoned, and cannot explore it himself. So I must bring the questions to you on my own, and hope it helps things."


Faun raises an eyebrow at me, his expression unreadable - as if that's any different than usual. "Odd. I still feel the touch of a Poet's hand in these events."

His expression goes slightly neutral again as he thinks for a moment. "Perhaps his work stretches on, past the time of recording? I know not the particulars of the work of Poets, though I've met many in my time. In any case, I know he is still alive. I can smell his heartbeat." His eyes flick back to me.

I nod. "The King brought me to see him earlier, for reasons I'm still not quite sure of."

Faun makes a ghost of a smile, then nods back. "Of course. To see if you were his fellow spy, Lotus." The name isn't spoken any differently, but I know he says it then to emphasize my subterfuge.

"I...that's not what it felt like." I blink. Only now do I feel the true nerves wash over me. It's actually a mercy that the King was so adept at pretending he wasn't trying to sniff me out - knowing that would have pressured me much more at the time. "I don't think he suspects anything. And even if he does...it's best if I ask you my questions. I can worry over being seen as a spy later." The animism raises an eyebrow.

"Questions? For me? You did mention that, but I wonder - what is it that you want to know from me?" His eyes scrutinize me, read me more deeply than a human's could. I swallow, my throat beginning to dry out.

"I was going to ask you about the Peacock King. I don't know of anyone else who could tell me about him without it simply being opinion. You two seem like you have a history, and you're in a position to know more. And...I'd like to know more about what you two were discussing before I came in. Hesperides. It upset him, and it was very strange to see him upset, or hear him be...sincere."

Faun's face grows troubled. This is a strange expression to watch - it's oddly natural, moreso than his learned smiles and coached laughter. His brows draw together and his jaw clenches, lips drawing tight. "Hesperides has a story that makes me sad. I will tell it to you, but you must mark it as very important in your mind, and not forget any word, for I do not wish to waste pain on forgetfulness. There is little to be learned from this story, unfortunately, for it speaks of repercussions that every human should have rightfully learned already. It is a story of waste and needless indecent acts."

"It is the story of my mother."

I sit up straight, almost jump in shock. He goes on.

"Animisms don't reproduce often. Our growth process is as long and patient as that of the the forests and meadows and tundra that we guard. She was...I suppose, is...very old, by your standards. Middle-aged, by mine. Slightly younger than that. I am a child by my kind's reckoning, in the way that we even bother to measure, and I am thousands of years old. My mother's valley was older than that. It was very beautiful, in its time. A peaceful, lazy freedom. She liked the butterflies the most. They thrived there, golden and warm."

His face grows troubled, an emotion so old and ground-in that it looks like a far-off fear. Perhaps it is. "The apples were what they wanted. The apples, so splendid when they were wild. A magical gift to her valley, from the Gods. An orchard of wild, golden apples.

"Humans did not transgress there for a long time. I do not know who started the legend of the golden apples, or that she was guarding them. I do not know who named the Dragon, who guarded the land her valley was in, Ladon. I do not know why they didn't understand that it wasn't because the apples were special that he guarded them so fiercely. It was just because they were his, and Dragons are like that.

"...They wanted them. They wanted the apples badly. And so they knew they could not fight a Dragon -- what can fight a Dragon? So instead they sought to manipulate him, or to bypass him. They sought the animism of the valley. Hesperides. The men, of no Kingdom, only a brigade of lost men, greedy and lawless, took her...and..." Faun pauses. His face is tight, corners of his mouth drawn back in a way that elongates his jaw, partially bares his teeth. His eyes are almost shut in sorrow. I almost reach out and pet his head to soothe him. I am way smarter than you think.

"...They made her to kneel, and when she bit at them, they broke her. Broke her spirit, bent her knees, taught collars to her, taught tame to her. They did it all out of spite, for apples, for nothing at all. They did it because they could." A growl rolls under his voice, primal and foreboding. My heart skips in its beating. "She was nothing, then. And the valley she guarded...broken. All the animals, broken, tamed like pets. The men didn't even care. They gave no notice to it. They tried to enter the valley again, to take the apples.

"The Dragon swallowed them up whole, from under the earth. He gave no entry to the humans that looked for them. They thought him mad, some warring soul, and began to make moves to seige him. Seige a Dragon! While Hesperides crumbled and curled onto the ground, lost with no human to follow. That's when he came.

"The Peacock King." Faun sighs, just a whisper. "He'd heard her call. Of course he would. He came to her aid. He ordered the army away.  He made motions of appeasement to the Dragon, treated him with respect and his proper due, and was allowed to enter the valley...albeit with dragonsbreath boiling down the back of his neck.

"Hesperides looked up. She only wanted a human to take her, really. Take her and lead her and show her what to do, because she couldn't know anymore. He bathed her, fed her. Treated her wounds, healed them. He gave her shelter there, gave her animals shelter. He cared for them all.

"The Dragon allowed him to build the garden there. It was the Peacock King's land. He'd accquired it, through whatever means he tends to do so, and the Dragon saw no infringement upon the Land by the King's actions. He did what was right to do. He did what no other King could, ironically, through his dangerous skills and talents of taming and handling. I cannot fault him for that. She and her animals still persist. Another King might have cared, but only the Peacock King would have devoted himself to the task in the way that he did. I suppose I saw something in what he did then that I wished he'd devote himself fully to. I saw him do good...where even I could not help my Mother. If it makes him sad, then perhaps..."

I cock my head, giving myself a shake. I'd become absorbed in his story, and was a little off-balance from being brought out so abruptly. "Perhaps?"

"...Perhaps there is hope for him yet, if he regrets what was done to her." His eyes search mine. "You're here to know of him, aren't you? Nobody dares ask of him. He's too powerful, too dominating. They're easily chased off, they are, no matter how aware I try to make the humans. Courts, Kings even, and they shrink from him. You are just a nameless actor posing as a servant, no title or property, no accolades. Yet you come to me where they would not. You are strange. I think I like you, but I wonder how long you will last."

My throat goes dry. "Oh? That's disturbing to hear, Faun. Perhaps your problem has been cryptic remarks like that, all along."

He cracks a fox-smile. "If Kings can't take truth when it comes from an animal's tongue, how can they take the commands and demands of their many subjects? How can they possibly stand to face the Peacock King, even? I am amused every time I deal with their wishy-washy politics. I much prefer the system of Law, and its Judge. He does not wince at the Truth." He sees me wince. He narrows his eyes.

...He lets it slide, after a few moments.

"You wish to hear of the Peacock King, Lotus? I have much to tell you. But he draws near now - best that I get my beauty rest." With that, he curls and folds into the position he had before, and I settle and make like I've been staring at someone silent and motionless for a long time.

The Peacock King approaches the cell. "Lotus? I suppose you've had your fill of observation?" He looks less tense, but marginally so.

I nod and rise. "Thank you for the opportunity, my King. Do you have any other need of me?"

He is silent for longer than I expect. "...Not tonight. Come. It's time there was rest in this Court."

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