4 - Come On! It's Fun to Spy On Your Siblings.

Lyric, or shall we say Lotus for now, since that is the name he's adopted to call himself by? Lotus has been given fine accommodations: a large suite full of the sort of finery that he's not had the good fortune to live in before. He'll be paid, too. The discussion of sums is out of his head now: really all just a blur. It's more than he expected as compensation, and all of this, down to the animism itself, is more than he expected when he first considered coming to this Kingdom. He has a suite to stay in, now, that he could never have dreamed he would be able to afford in his lifetime.

But as Lotus considers, or avoids considering, all of this, he isn't in his beautiful new suite. It's crowded, even though it is large. It's...loud, even with just him inside. Its every nook and cranny reminds Lotus of where he is and what he is done.

Out here in the garden, at the edge of the pond, amongst the cattails, Lotus can see the sky much better. He doesn't even need to look up, really. He can see it depicted so well in the pond's surface. The occasional ripple is only natural. Of course the world is rippling. Animisms are being bought and sold and caged. His Father's progeny is in the pay of the Peacock King. And said progeny just committed a crime that rightfully means his hand should be cut clean off.

No, if this pond were a true indication of the world, it would have high waves with breakers, not these soft, tiny ripples.

Lotus skirts a look over each shoulder. It's the same look he gave when he first saw his brother Gerald and had to check the room for onlookers. No, he's alone. No one is watching.

Lotus takes a hard silk-covered case from the sash of his robe. [A new robe, from the King himself. He has a new wardrobe, in fact. In a way, they are uniforms - the cuts and lines and patterns on them all reflect the Peacock King's motifs.] His fingers trace over the butterflies embroidered into the lid. He opens it and removes a cigarette. Something from the old world he used to live in. They were expensive, but near the end he was being paid very well for his services.

He feels out of place lighting it here. It is contraband, being a smuggled foreign good that he did not report. There are very strict regulations on imports in this Kingdom, since it is such a secure place and so hard to gain entrance into. The Peacock King shuns ties with others and instead values privacy. Anything that comes in must be inspected to see if there is propoganda, or if it could be considered propoganda. Especially this, skirting close to the definition of a drug.

Also, he has yet to see someone here smoke. He wonders if it's forbidden. Of course, it could be that the surroundings are so beautiful here, so natural, that people feel very strange smoking. But he needs it. He's not sure if it's the relief from stress or the taste of home that he needs more. Either way...

...Either way, it's a relief to start smoking, up until a hand falls on his shoulder and he almost drops the valued cigarette.

Now he wishes he would have dropped it. It would have remained hidden then. But now he's frozen, cigarette firmly clamped in his fingers. He wants to stutter something out.

The Peacock King slides down next to Lotus, sits beside him at the pond, his hand still resting on the boy's shoulder. It nudges sideways, brushes over the boy's arm and sneaks into his hand, slim fingers easing the cigarette out. The monarch brings it to his lips, inhales. The orange glow at the tip echoes bright in his red-hued eye, glints dim in the blue-hued one. He smiles, passes it back to Lotus. "I've yet to taste that type. We have so few leaves coming into my kindgom. Perhaps I'll have to start sneaking them in myself."

Lotus almost chokes. Truth be told, the sound that comes out of him sounds close enough to it that someone could easily make the mistake.

"Nervous of being caught with it? I've committed higher crimes in my own kingdom. I'll not fault you for a small addiction." He looks over to Lotus just for a moment, then back to his pond. He cocks his head in a birdlike manner, then leans forward, stretching his hand out over the water.

"Come here, darlings. Monarchs." He coos in a soft tone that can be heard across the pond. Lotus sees them, then. Floating out from the reeds like cotton and lace finery, like...

"Like the hyacinth, I like to imagine. Look at the feathers, so precise, fanning out so artfully. Floating baskets. And their necks, arched high, proud like kings." He keeps his hand out, beckons just slightly to one, and it swims up to him. It caresses his hand with the side of itsface.

"You can pet it, Lotus." The King's voice is low, soft, but it still comes across as a command of sorts.

Lotus blinks. He'd never...he had heard that they were dangerous. Such large birds could break his neck with a wingbeat. He'd heard tales of geese attacking, to be sure. Could he...could he touch it?

He stretches his hand out, the edges of his sleeve grazing over the face of the pond. He slides his index finger over one long, tapering feather. The animal only rests its head in the King's palm.

"See? Nothing I take into my Kingdom can harm me, nor those I protect. Not even Faun-doe can, much as he thinks he'd love to."

Lotus digests that, keeps that piece of information very close, sure of the fact that it will be very important for him to remember. He nods to show his understanding. The King smiles at him.

"Lonely on your first night here?" It's an idle question. Conversational.

"I...it's been a long journey. I guess I'm just a little stunned. The quiet is nice out here."

"You don't need to worry about getting the suite dirty by smoking in it."

Lotus blinks. "...Oh. Thanks." He takes a drag off of his cigarette.

The King chuckles. "And ettiquette? Not something you're so reknowned for either, my boy."

"Thanks...your Majesty?" Lotus's eyebrows raise in innocent curiosity.

The Peacock King coughs into his well-manicured hand. His eyebrow raises, and his tone is wry. "You might attempt to make it sound more sincere in my Court. These customs tend to make acceptance more favorable for you."

"Oh, right." Lotus nods and smiles. "Thank you."

The King's grin quirks curiously, as if he's holding back some judgement, some remark, or just some laughter. "Well. Good night, young Lotus. I hope you find fine company in your thoughts out here. If not, my quarters are down the hall." With that, he rises, and leaves with his hands tucked into his sleeves. As much as his robes drag and drape behind him, his departure is completely silent.

Lotus wonders how far that remark was meant to be taken, then considers the Kingdom he's in, considers its King. It was meant to be taken as far as his bedroom.

Lotus would be wise to take it as far as his own bedroom, and go to sleep. And really, there's not much arguing with himself there. He's seen the King's way with leashes and pets. He doesn't want to see how much farther it goes.

He's tired. He misses home, and it's far away.

* * *

Lotus settles well into his new bed. The room feels less alien now, less foreboding. He hasn't had much to call his own before, ever since he left home. This place is nice. It's a comfort to think it could be his. It's a comfort to think this big bed with its soft mattress and silk sheets could be something he could call his.

And really, he's so weary from this day that any pleasant place with a lock on its door and a spot he can comfortably recline is beyond his blurred scrutiny. Sleep isn't something that comes gradually. Sleep is like plummetting into a deep pond and never floating back to the surface. The waters slip over his head and he's gone.

He expects peace, quiet, calm. Like the pond, with its few ripples, its graceful, quiet birds. But he is nervous here. He didn't feel like this in his room. To be more precise, he'd expected to feel more like this in his room, and was surprised when he didn't. Everything around Lotus is grey. There's a ground, smooth like metal, like the surface of a pond but completely rigid. When he turns, he can see next to nothing in the distance - fog tapers his range of vision off to about fifteen feet out. Everything seems so still, like it's frozen. There's no sound, only the echoes and memories of sounds he's heard before. And he hears breathing. He hears breathing and he swears it's not his own.

What is he so afraid of here?

Of course, that's the wrong question to ask. He hears the bootheels, faint in the distance, then growning louder, more clear. Someone is approaching behind him. A cold chill runs up his neck. He's afraid to turn. He's afraid not to turn. He's afraid to choose between those two.

He hears the sigh, and his hopes slump. He recognizes that demeanor. He recongizes that gait. He turns, and he can barely see the figure in the dimness. It's a vague, fuzzy silhouette. It is tall, though. A man that holds himself high, chin out and steps unrelenting. It's not so much pride that holds the shoulders up as it is a kind of dead certainty. Lyric, not Lotus anymore, not some fake name but definitely Lyric, stumbles back, wobbles, and almost ends up sitting on this strange floor. As it is, he's staring up pretty high at the figure in the fog. He swallows, feels it catch in his throat. He's not ready. He never was ready to face this and he never will be.

Oh Father, how did you find me here, of all places? WHY did you find me here, of all places?

There's a snort. That's his Father alright. The fog parts, Lyric recognizes the face. He's doomed. He's worse than dead. He's grounded.

...I grin. "I'm going to remember that face of yours that you're wearing right now. I'll commit it to Poetry, and then I'll commission a drawing. It's something to treasure always."

Lyris is silent. This is a rare event. I cherish it while it lasts.

"...Brother, if you tell him about this, I will find a way to murder you that looks like the most embarassing suicide imaginable. And believe me, by this time in my wanderings, I've seen enough to make it happen."

I grin really big and hold my arms out. "Come on. Give your big brother a hug. I missed you."

Lyric drives forward. It's more a tackle crossed with a headbutt, but I wrap my arms around my brother and take it as a hug all the same. Besides, Lyric's pretty tiny. He might say he's seen a lot, but he'll have a lot to learn before he manages to knock me on my ass.

"...Missed you too." The statement is muffled, being almost embedded in my chest. It's grudging, but there's sincerity to it.

I nod. "Amazing what it takes just to have a family reunion with you. You don't suppose you could have picked a better enemy kingdom to defect to?"

Lyric freezes. I wonder if he'll draw away. "That's...that's not what I'm doing. That's not how I got here."

"Then how did you get here?" There's a tone of exasperation under my voice, like we've had this conversation before. Like we've had this conversation a hundred times before, in fact. In a way we haven't and in a way we have. I've heard our Father have this exchange with Lyric so many times that I might as well have a script for it.

"I...well...it's a really long story. Maybe you want to sit down for it." Lyric draws away, arms crossing over his chest. He's looking off to the side, but it's less about not making eye contact and more about gathering the threads of whatever tale he's going to spin for this.

I sigh and sit, my expression half-patient, half amused. I should settle in for this. It's gonna be a good one. Lyric watches, makes sure I'm comfortable and am paying attention, and then starts.

"Well, I'd left home, as you well know. And it took awhile to really, you know, find my niche. It was hard to find a place for someone with my particular talents and skills because, unique as they are, and as starkly individualistic as I am, there was just no readily-made pre-formed mold for me to fit in, you know? So it was difficult going for awhile, but I managed to keep myself afloat. It took some doing, but, well, Dad raised us to survive, right? Even if we leave the nest without his advice or, I don't know, consent or whatever. So I guess I stayed in our Kingdom for a little bit, but really what I did was leave it pretty early, because I mean, what's the good of trying to support yourself if you stay in some place that your Father's going to easily track you down to? I mean, then I wouldn't be very independent and all, so it's really for the best that I took off and jumped a few borders. I mean..." He sweeps his hand out, then inspects his nails as he keeps talking. "...I just went over one border at first, then tried my luck there, and, wouldn't you know...well, things just went bad, a little bit bad, it was out of my hands. Nothing I could do! People just don't understand sometimes, you know, the right people, they don't...well anyways, I learned what not to do in bars, I guess. Well, a little bit of what not to do. I guess that's not enough to leave a Kingdom but I caught this caravan and they seemed like really fun people. And I taught them to dance! That was really fun. So I pretty much managed to keep myself fed and have a dry place to sleep, well, the bottom of a wagon but a dry wagon, and I did it on my own. Then we ended up...well, one thing led to another. Two countries over? Three? Geography was never my strong point."

My face is resting in my palm now, but I skirt glances up to keep track of my brother's gestures and face, and to make sure that Lyric hasn't seen my facepalming at all of this yet.

"So, anyway. They're performer types, some of them, and uh...well, some petty thieves too, maybe a few mercenaries, anyways the party breaks up once we hit a real city. The capitol city. I stick with some of the street performers. I haven't shown them my acting yet. It's...well, I didn't want to drive anyone off. They're...they did down-to-earth tricks, stuff like I do, it's...not ordinary, sort of like what you do but a little different, and I didn't want anyone scared...anyways! I realized how to fix that later, though. So, that Kingdom, that was Astoniarche. We got a gig to show up in the King's Court there, show what talents we had. He really needed an animal trainer. None of us did that sort of thing. But...well, nobody with me knew that, Gerald. I mean, they didn't know I couldn't train things. But, see, the thing is....I figured if I acted like I could...stop looking like that! Damnit, Gerald, you haven't even heard the whole story."

I nods my head against my palm. "Sorry."

"Your apology is accepted. So, I figure if I act like it, it'll work. And you know...it did! Because to animals training's acting too. They see the body language and hear what you say and it's really just a type of communication. I don't think it's really training, it's more talking. So I don't know about, you know, breaking animals. That's...I don't see the point. See they don't care, really, as long as they can understand you, they know what role they need to play. Animals play roles all the time. They puff up and act all big and threatening to make animals that want to fight with them back off. They show off and look successful and healthy for a mate. They call out and sing and dance to talk to each other. That's all language that I can understand. So really, as an actor, I fit very well as an animal trainer, since to the animals it's all about acting anyways."

I notice my brother has paused. I understand, having witnessed this whole dance so many times before, that this is where I should reply with, "I see."

"Yeah. Right! So, I got a lot of fame doing that. It kind of happened...overnight. I guess...well I didn't understand quite at the time, but see, in Astoniarche, they...well most of them don't interact with animals very well. It's kind of hard to explain--"

"I know what you speak of."

"...Oh. Right. Well, then you know. So, my skills got really famous really fast. I drew a lot of crowds, started making some real money, saving up. I...I bought things! On my own! And I didn't even have to stea--err." He pauses. Just for a moment. "Anyways I was making it independently just like I should have been all this time, and that was really good! And...I was getting kind of famous too. Actually, I was...well I was kind of afraid, before, that Father was going to show up. And I was making such a big name for myself. So I took a stage name."

"You've taken a lot of...'stage names'." I cross one leg over the other, inspecting the toes of my boots.

Lyric's face pales a little bit. "Oh! You heard! Well...well I had reasons, you know, all those other names I took along the way..."

"I imagine you did. Go on."

"Well...anyway, my craft name is Lotus. I didn't think Daddy would track me down by it."

"You still call him that?" I slip and say it before I can stop myself.

"..." Lyric gives just a moment of pause, of thought. "So, I got this invitation." ...Then he ignores the question entirely. "I'd been performing in Astoniarche King's Court for quite some time, but this...this was bigger." He's pausing now, trying to figure out how to phrase things, trying to make this a smooth story. It's obvious he's troubled by where it's going, though. "This was...well, the invitation itself...the gold ink and the engraving...the messengers that delivered it and waited there for my answer...and the offer. The offer...was very good." He looks at me, then looks away. "Astoniarche isn't allied against the Peacock King in the way our Kingdom was. Uh...is, I suppose. I...well I was used to other customs, and I didn't...I don't live in Father's Kingdom anymore. So I didn't think it was important."

I withhold the response. You didn't think at all.

"I did. I did think about it. Keep your mind quiet, brother, you Poets always broadcast more than you think you do. You might carry Arms and might have had that training and lived that life but damned if I didn't catch you unawares in the Peacock King's Court today. Damnit, don't you know anything about safety?"

I hold back the scoff I'd like to make in response.

"It was a good offer and I thought I could keep the gig for a few years, make enough to go totally independent, then...well, move back home. In my own place. Everything'd be okay then. It'd just take some work and some waiting. So, I replied and took the offer. The Peacock King sent back a wagon for me. Well, I say a wagon, but it was almost too nice and too pretty to call it that. Travel was very fast in it, too. Not like the wagons in that caravan I'd been in. So, I got in just a little bit before I found you in the main King's Court here. After that...you know the story."

I nod. "So, I'll just leave you to your devices then? Let you save up and wait for you to come home on your own? You sound like you're doing alright for yourself. More than alright, really. You certainly don't need any help right now, do you?"

I'm not surprised when my question is answered with silence.

"It was a good offer, I know. And you took it, because you thought you'd gotten really lucky. I've heard the tales. That's how they always start. But I don't think this one ends with you moving back to our Kingdom, happy and wealthy. I don't think this ends very well for you at all, Lyric. And I know stories, now. I can see the warp and weave of their fabric. I can predict the pattern."

I look at Lyric. His face is totally pale now, and he's frozen in a half-defensive, half-retreating stance.


"If you find out the Honorable Mister Animism's story for me, perhaps your own tale will change. We'll see. All I know for certain is that what I've recorded so far doesn't speak very well of your actions, though it shows your intents are a far cry from that of the monarch who's hired you. It speaks of someone who's been tricked and coerced, and doesn't know what to do with himself now. You're an actor, or so you've always insisted to us. It's your trade and your life. Can you use that? Will you use that? Or will you simply fold and let the Peacock King use you? There's naught I can do if you don't ante up. If you do...then the story changes."

Lyric looks at me, level and calm. "...Did you rehearse that or something?"

I drape my arms over my knees. "You may be the actor of the family, but you're not the only one with a few skills of that persuasion. Now, can you take care of yourself? Can I depend on you? If not, I'm not going to go ahead with this. You can figure out what to do about your situation and your crimes while I get the job done that I came here to do." I brace, then push myself upright, stand, and wait for Lyric's answer.

"...You...you can depend on me. I'm sorry. I know it's not much, considering the person it's coming from."

I'm silent. Lyric thinks, for a moment, that he doesn't rate a reply. "...It's worth enough." More than enough. "Get some sleep, Lyric. You've had a long day and have traveled far."

Lyric opens his mouth to respond, but I fade out before he has the chance. As I leave, the dream blurs and becomes insubstantial. Lyric drops out of it and sinks into a deeper rest.

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