11 - Tea Bars

I don't remember anything of my dreams, anything at all. It's all a blur, that night. All I know is that I got very little sleep of real value.

This morning brought a surprise. I'd eaten alone for my first few days here - today, however, the Peacock King wished to have breakfast with me on the patio outside his living suite. I was a little nervous to be so near his quarters. His very presence is so commanding and dominating on its own - closer to his rooms it becomes even harder to bear without showing strain.

I miss just working for pay and not having to worry about all of this. All of a sudden the weight of everything just comes upon my back and almost doubles me over. I don't want to be here. I don't want to be stuck in the middle of this. I don't want to have to worry about anyone else.

...Ah well, it's natural. I haven't had my morning tea yet and I've got a pair of talking guns buried in a flowerpot next to my bed - of course I'm cranky.

Speaking of tea, the Peacock King himself comes out with a tray balanced upon splayed fingers. He gives me a pleasant nod, then sets the tray down on the table. Steam drifts up from the charming oriental teapot's spout.

[A thought trails into the front of my mind and tangles itself there: does Gerald have tea where he is? How is he being treated? Surely even the lowliest of prisoners must be accorded some dignity. Even people who are so far below contempt like my brother is.]

I reach forward and serve us both tea as the King sits back, pleased at my showing initiative. It smells divine, like all tea should. By the scent I can tell this particular blend has green tea and some sort of citrus flower mixed in it. He takes his cup in both hands and holds it up close under his chin, eyes reflected in it, making a rainbow shimmer across the surface.

To my relief he just makes idle chatter, inquiring as to how I'm adjusting to living here, how I like my job, even the weather.  He notices my end of the conversation is a little...stunted.  I'm hesitant, I know.  Part of me never stops being nervous when I'm around him, and I have my brother and Faun to worry about, along with everything else.

But the Peacock King, being such an alert individual, and so concerned about the mental state of others around him, does not let the subject of my mood go unmentioned.

"Lotus?  Whatever has you so distracted?  I've never seen someone appear so dull-mooded while drinking this blend."  He fixes me with a stare that has its concern in it, but also doesn't let me avert my eyes and hide my reaction.  That's the thing about his version of kindness...it's far too often paired with interrogation.

...I can't really hide it, can I?  As much as I prided myself on my acting, there's been so many times in this kingdom that it's failed me.  Well, time to try it again, anyways.  Talking about this without getting myself indicted is going to be very difficult.  "I'm...a little troubled by what happened the other night.  It's rested on my mind more heavily than I expected.  I've always tried to avoid politics and rivalries when it comes to my work in the different Kingdoms.  I figure that stuff's best left to those who are suited to it.  To be honest, it's always left me a little nervous.  And, well...I'm not originally from this Kingdom, so it's troubled me that another outsider has caused trouble in here.  I don't want your Court put in danger, but on the other hand, what if he's a fellow countryman?  I...maybe I'm thinking too much about this, sir.  --Er, Sire."  Damnit, it's hard enough to keep my act straight without having to try to remember proper protocol.

The Peacock King has paused in his enjoyment of his tea to watch me, one eyebrow raised.  "I do wonder...Lotus, my boy, do you have any affiliations with the Poet's Court?"

I let the surprise hit my face.  That I didn't expect Poets to be brought up so bluntly can be interpreted as a lack of affiliation with them.  "None, Sire.  I've heard a bit about them, but never was able to learn too much.  ...They're a strange bunch, though, aren't they?  Certainly interesting, but so secretive."  I blink, realization dawning on my face.  "Wait, the spy, he wasn't--"

The Peacock King nods his head very sadly.  "I'm afraid it's the truth.  As much as I laud the accomplishments of that particular order...it seems their King has deemed me and my Kingdom to be of interest to him.  And it isn't the first time, either.  They're a talented and creative bunch, the Poets, but they do follow the lead of their King, not that I blame them.  It's important to follow your Monarch.  But, due to the King in question...they're not very...trustworthy."  He looks to the side, his expression strangely dark for such a bright, sunlit morning.  "I apologize, Lotus.  It is troubling to me."  He rises.

"...Come, you may meet him."

"What?" I can't hide my surprise.  But why bother by now?

The King turns, begins to walk without me.  "I'd like you to have a feel for the loyalties of this Kingdom early, Lotus, before you've settled in.  ...And they are quite interesting, aren't they?  The Poets.  I'm sure you'll learn something.  And you'll know what to be wary for."  His tone grows more troubled by the second.

"Sire?  What's wrong?"  I get to my feet to catch up with him, walking behind him and to the right.

"...Politics and affairs of the Courts, Lotus.  You may not like them, but they affect everyone.  The fact is, I've caught one of their spies.  Can you put a little thought into what that might mean for their Kingdom?  For ours?  War is not something I fear, but I would prefer not to be engaged in one with the Poets."

A chill creeps up my spine.


"...Your Majesty, surely not...over one spy?"

"That all depends on the Poet King, Lotus.  While I've found him to be belligerent, stubborn, and arrogant when it comes to these matters, perhaps he will see reason, this one time."

...I've seen the Poet King, even met him a few times, though not for very long.  He's had drinks in my Father's parlor, listened to my Father play piano there.  He's distant, sometimes...but I expected him to be distant.  It's a bit of a Poet hallmark, really.  But most times he had an intense focus that I recognized from my Father - the eyes and presence of someone in command.  Other than being a little more quiet than expected, he was nice, always polite...more charming than the Peacock King.

I don't have enough experience to know whether he's a stubborn ruler, but my Father spoke well of him, most times - occasionally I'd catch comments about the Poet King being too dedicated to his position, overworking himself into a frenzy.  But these were rare, though that's partly because Father was so discreet that I only caught these comments when I was sneaking around.

Not...not that I snuck around my Father's place...not for anything bad, anyways...does this ink erase?  If I scratch it out someone will know I scratched something out...wait, why am I writing this too?

Disregarding the above paragraph which shouldn't be transcribed into any official editions of this account...or that part of the sentence, either...anyways, the Poet King has a good reputation with my Father and my family, and it's very strange to hear ill spoken of him, even by someone like the Peacock King who has set himself against so many other Kingdoms.

...What's even stranger is readying myself to see my brother. It's odd. I had worried for him in the sense of the long run - how to get him out, what to do if he caused international incident - but I hadn't given any thought as to if he was still alive. I don't know why I didn't worry. I did worry over whether he was doing alright, of course - but it never even crossed my mind that he could be dead or close to it.

Maybe it's just sibling intuition. Which would be odd, considering how little I understand him otherwise.

I follow the Peacock King from the patio along a path through his gardens. It winds towards his suite, then under an arched entryway that's very dark. He picks up a lantern on the way in and gestures for me to come closer so that we can share the light more easily. I walk beside him, just ever so slightly back. The hallway we proceed through is made of white marble masonry, appearing elegant, but with a serviceable edge. It is not another attraction or treat for the eye. It feels a little damp in here, like a cave...or a tomb. Well, I haven't been in any tombs. They're scary. But I think one might feel like this.

The walkway is sloping down a bit as we walk. The hall opens out on a large circular chamber, with tunnels leading from it in every direction. I notice it feels dark, even though it's well-lit inside here. There are crystal globes glowing with clean, cold energy. Every now and then I see something shift or dance inside one, and wonder if they're one of the nymph-spirits that the Peacock King is so fond of keeping.

...Still, why does it feel so dark? And...quiet, as if my ears are muffled...

The Peacock King makes a gesture with his hand, and the air feels clearer, more welcoming. I realize that this place was warded. I must have been perceiving the magical defenses. He nods towards a tunnel offshoot, and we proceed down it. I...I can't remember the journey. I don't understand why, but I remember nothing of that tunnel. I could not chart the walk again if I tried. Maybe it's more of the work of his wards. The King didn't behave as if anything was amiss.

It's all blank, that point. The first thing I remember after that is looking up and seeing Gerald's slumped form silhouetted in a tightly-warded cell. My eyes take a moment to even parse it. The wards are so thick that I can see them, and I'm not the most adept at that sort of thing.

He's sitting on the floor, his back against the wall. His hands are manacled up at the height of his head, spread out to each side. His ankles are manacled directly to the floor, legs laying flat out against the stone. He's missing most of his accessories - all he's wearing now are his shirt and pants. He's not even been allowed his boots. Other than his hands and ankles, there are no other restraints. Instead there's a thin iron collar around his neck with a softly pulsing red jewel in the middle. For some reason, nothing else in the scene makes my hackles rise, but that detail does. Maybe because it seems like overkill. Maybe because I'm tired of seeing everyone here treated as another pet, down to my brother. Whatever the collar is, I assume it has some other means of restraining him than chains.

The Peacock King tsks, standing outside of the cell with his arms crossed. "A shame I have to pen you up so tight, Poet. But I know how far you'll go to write yourself out of there. If it weren't for that, your accomodations would better match the honor I would prefer to accord your position." He opens the cell. There is no key - I see no lock. I can only assume that it opens only for him, or that after all of these precautions, there's no need for one. I highly suspect the former.

Gerald only looks up when the cell door opens. He has the perfect poker face - down to that quarter-of-a-smile he wears so well. His expression only changes when he sees me outside the bars - half an eyebrow-raise. "You've brought me company? Why, thank you. I'd love to make another friend." An even, measured tone - not quite lighthearted. Maybe he's feeling too much pressure about the situation to truly joke.

I glance over to the Peacock King. He's looking at me, waiting for my attention. He sweeps his hand in a come-hither gesture. I enter the cell. As I do, I wince. The energy is so thick that I feel it press against my skin and wash over it, feel my clothing shift as if a wave had sloshed over me. The King reaches out to steady me, expecting the reaction.

...Yes, there is far more locking this cell than a key is necessary for. I start to wonder how in Hells I'm going to get him out of this.  I let that thought train chug along in the background, while I deal with the present. I look over my brother, keeping my face neutral, but inquisitive. I don't meet his eyes. "Funny, he doesn't look like I imagined a Poet would." Well, it's dialogue, to keep things moving. I want to show some sort of a reaction, after all. ...And it's also true. Gerald may be a writer-mage, but he sure doesn't look like one.

The Peacock King gives me a halfway-smile. "My thoughts as well, but I did catch him in the very act of writing his Poetry. I thought for a moment he might also be an Armed, truth be told. He's dressed as if he wants to be one. Alas, he lacks the actual arms to be borne, and no would ever be caught without them." He looks down at Gerald. "See? I bring an ordinary citizen of my country in, to show just who has encroached here. I am not hiding you. I am being discreet, doing you a favor, in fact. If I let it out publicly that I had caught one of your kind spying in our records, someone might call for war. I know that's not what you want." He turns towards me. "You know discretion as well, don't you? You understand I do this for his safety more than my own." I hear Gerald make a cough at the discretion question. I stifle the urge to go and punch him in the stomach. After all, he's so defenseless right now. I could totally nail him.

Gerald smiles, the expression a bit weary, but still sunny enough considering his situation. "Don't think I don't appreciate the courtesy, sire. Were I in your position, though, I'd just let me go. This is just a misunderstanding. Best to just forget about it."

The Peacock King smiles, amused yet a little disappointed. "I expected so much more from you, considering who your Father is."

Gerald freezes. I try not to pee in my pants. I'm sure I was successful. At least that's the way I'm writing it.

"It shows, you know. When you get older, you'll have people mistaking you for him outright, instead of seeing the family line in your face. It's intriguing looking at you, in that way. I don't know if anyone could imagine the High Judge at your age. You should try profiting from it. ...But I suppose he would take issue with that, hmm?" The Peacock King brushes his fingers idly over his chin, musing. "Possibly in the same way that he would take issue with his son spying, and of all the dreadful things that would happen upon his getting caught."

I see true anger spread over Gerald's face, anger unlike anything I've seen in him before.  

"...But then, that's really just a family issue. Nothing for me to worry over. Once it gets out to his Kingdom, though...I wonder how the public will take such information? The High Judge, the face and voice and hands of the Law...Father to a spy? My. Such inconvenience that would cause." He scoffs at the angry look on Gerald's face, the grinding of my brother's teeth. "My, my. Such emotion, coming from a youth. You'll grow up too fast if you dote on your feelings like that. Why not think, instead, of how best to avoid incident?" His smirk tucks into his cheek, lazy and comfortable. "What can we do to ensure peace? That's the question I always ask." He turns to the side, hands clasped behind his back, and begins to pace.

I watch from the back of the cell, dumbfounded. Gerald's anger is slipping into something still mad, but with an edge of franticness to it. I hope he doesn't panic. He's in a very bad position for that.

"Ensure peace? You? The conqueror of so many free, non-warring peoples? What could you possibly know of peace?" He spits the last word out, almost hurls it at the King. The jewel at his throat gives a quick pulse, and Gerald jerks back, sucking in his breath with a start.

The King turns his head slowly towards Gerald, smile growing inch by slow inch. "My Kingdom is peaceful. Its denizens are happy and well-protected, well cared for. If there was war in their past, surely they don't care about it now. Their lives are better in my Kingdom than they were under their previous rulers." He turns fully to face my brother, chin high, chest out. "I receive praises from my people that I've led them to a new light, led their towns and cities into prosperity they could never dream of. Given them the protection they need to truly enjoy their freedoms. No other ruler could do this. So, Poet...you speak of peace? You blindly repeat what is told to you, more like. If you'd taken a chance to walk around my Kingdom and witness it, instead of holing yourself up in our musty books and faded records, you would have seen with your own eyes what is true." He tsks. "I love the arts of the Poets, but your kind hold words too high above what is real."

Gerald is silent, thinking. His face is still angry, but he's calmed himself. That's good. I worry if he gets too angry. He's on the defensive, in chains. And he's being stifled by wards and that collar. This isn't fair to him at all.

The Peacock King stares down at him, awaits an answer.

"What do you wish of me? I'd know it, even if I'm not like to do it." Gerald speaks with his eyes closed.

The Peacock King smiles. "I might let you go with no trouble at all, for a few of your services."

Gerald's eyes snap open, flick up. "You wish for me to write without the authority or knowledge of my King?" It's said in a low voice, calm, but something about those words is very heavy indeed.

The Peacock King nods, arms crossed. "My dear boy, I find your King to be the very thing wrong with your order. Not even something terminal, really. Maybe all he needs is to learn to loosen his grip on his subjects, give them a little freedom to write on their own, without his overseeing it."

Gerald raises an eyebrow. "Mere humor, coming from a tyrant such as yourself."

The Peacock King smiles. "My people are peaceful, whereas the Poet King's spy within a peaceful Kingdom's borders. Who is the tyrant?" He shakes hs head, waves his hand. "Think about it. I require very little of you, Poet. In the meantime, I will have someone come down with your meal soon. In light of your apparent emotional distress, I shall have tea served as well. I know how much you Poets treasure the drink. ...A shame our minds can't meet so cleanly on other topics." With that, he departs, waving me to walk out in front of him.

The cell door closes with a finality that tears my heart. I look back at Gerald over my shoulder. I catch his eyes.

...And then the Peacock King guides me down the hall, and my brother is once again out of sight.

"I hope this has done somewhat to ease your mind, Lotus. As you see, I try to solve these affairs as peaceably as I can. And just think - we may yet have a Poet-inscribed collar for Faun-doe. It would be delightful to reap such a boon from this terrible bit of incident."

I nod, murmur my agreement, and follow his lead to leave this place. I wish I could remember the way in these warded caves. I want to break Gerald out of here so badly.

At least he's having his tea.

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