6 - Garden of Delights

I'm not in the Court itself, but rather in an record-office for the guards, sorting through paperwork. It's quiet in here, cleaner than expected. The King does keep his Palace immaculate, even in the places not seen by the public.

Oh, look. How delightful. Maps.

I listen in on my brother while I work. He's looking at things that are far too interesting to not watch myself.

* * *

"...There are no cages." It's the only observation Lotus can put his voice behind yet.

The Peacock King nods, grinning. "Cages are not necessary, and leashes are more of a show than anything else. If a creature doesn't stay where it's told, it isn't properly trained yet."

* * *

I have to break out of Poetry to explain to you what I see through Lotus's eyes, because Lotus won't tell it right. He doesn't have the proper background, and he's too afraid right now to think enough about this to really do it justice.

There is a huge flate expanse of ivory onyx flooring, regularly dotted with columns. The columns hold up a ceiling and then lead the view out to the edge of the porch, where there are no walls. There are a few spaces within the porch that are bordered by glass and brass supports, gold leafing and gemstone accents. They are perches, seats for the pets he keeps here. But there are no cages, no, save the giant cage of a Palace that this is built inside of. There are regular spaces in the ceiling for sun to shine through, and mirrors anchored in various spots to spread light throughout the entire wall-less room.

The rushing water I hear isn't solely from the marble fountains. There is a creek that flows through this garden, cutting right through the floor. There are trees that grow up through the holes in the ceiling, lush ferns, and hanging vines. It doesn't look overgrown. It looks clean, precise, and tightly controlled, despite the lack of walls, despite the open spaces. Animals crawl and flutter and slither in and out - squirrels and birds, snakes and lizards - and yet it all still feels regulated.

What does the Peacock King keep, in a garden such as this? Not animals, though some animals do live here. He thinks of what he keeps here as beasts, I am sure, but Faun is more animal than these beings, if only for the reason that he is an animism. For that matter, I'm more animal than these beings. I could call them creatures. I would feel a twinge of indecency from it, but I could.

The Peacock King sweeps his hand forward, palm out, and directs my brother's attention to the first one. "I call her Ahlunneisturand now. Isn't she beautiful? I accquired her locally, as her river ran through my Kingdom even before it was expanded. It's a tributary to this spring, here, actually. It's important to keep her kind in a place where their native waters are readily accessible. Ahlunneistrand? This is Lotus. He'll be caring for you at times. You'll see a lot of him in the upcoming future."

She gives a short bow to my brother. Not as deep as the one she skirted to the King. She looks like a woman, but I've met her kind many times before. She is far from human. She almost glows in the sunlight, and though the angle to the stream is completely wrong, it appears as if light is reflecting off of water and onto her skin, all across her naked body. She is, of course, beautiful in such a flawless way that she appears almost alien. I wonder if that'll have any effect on my brother, though, beyond him inquiring what hair care products she uses.

There is a river that runs through this kingdom. It has flowed for years upon years. It predates the empire. Of course, the names of rivers and lands and mountains as we know them are not often their true names. The river's true name may not be the same as its name recorded before the current empire - Elhusuterrain. But it may be that it was its true name. Regardless, the river was renamed by the Peacock King before he took several adjoining kingdoms that the river ran through. He named it the Ahlunneistrand.

She is its nymph.

He took control of the river through means that none outside his borders understood. He could change the direction of its course, cause floods and draughts, make dead zones or bring new life to it. He didn't so much wage war against the kingdoms neighboring him as he held their water ransom.

And now, I know his secret: he found its nymph, the living manifestation of the heart and will of the river. He took her, and bound her, and made her his slave.

"She is not my oldest, though. Well, 'elder' is a bit difficult to define for these beasts, but she is not my first, shall we say. But my first I cannot show you now. She is a dryad, and her tree is not here. I shall introduce you, Lotus, when we travel to that area of my kingdom, hmm? But in the meantime, I want you to see her sapling, here. The child of a great, holy tree. Isn't she beautiful?"

I find it difficult to look in anymore. But I no longer can mock my brother's ability to act. Through the course of being introduced to so many enslaved spirits of the woods and waters, he does not bat an eye, does not show his shock, horror, or revulsion. I only know that he feels them because I can write them, because he carries a piece of my mind in his now.

I note how many he keeps here, the types of spirits, and any names that the King gives as theirs in the back of my mind, but my focus shifts to the maps and records that I am sorting through and copying. I need a break, and the task helps me fix these 'pets' the King keeps into context.  It is also an oppurtune time to introduce to you some terms to describe what Lotus is witnessing. In common speak, the vocabulary is somewhat lacking. I'll have to use some rarer, more specific words, and since these terms aren't used often enough to be precise, I'm going to have to outline exactly what I mean by them, so as not to make my writings confusing.

'Animism' is a tricky word. Used specifically, it of course refers to spirits like Faun, who embody the animal life of a given area, such as a forest or meadow. Much like the more commonly known dryads and water nymphs (or naiads if you're being more precise), they embody the well-being of that which they preside over. If Faun is injured, every animal within his territory is also injured in the same way. Animisms are there to ensure that the animal population in a certain area remains stable. They are known to attack individual humans for grossly upsetting the balance, but most times all they seem to need to do is exist unharmed, and the population will thrive. Animisms very rarely have much attention paid to them - truth be told, most humans misunderstand and resent them. Whereas most nymphs have their allures and wiles, and will tempt a man with them on occasion, animisms are the exact opposite of agreeable and any attempt to try anything untoward with them will usually result in the unwilling castration of the person who initiated the unwanted physical dialouge.

(I have a brother who lost a fingertip to one this way. Last time he ever tried to date a girl wearing leopard print.)

To further be confusing, 'animism' is also sometimes used to refer to any spirit of the animals or elements, and 'nymph' refers to any spirit of the elements. 'Methilae' is a specific word for water-spirits and is a bit more flexible than 'naiad', which I've seen about a dozen specific definitions for throughout my travels. Methilae can embody entire rivers or can be associated with springs and creeks. Often the branching tributaries become a family tree of spirits similar to a heirachic command structure. Ahlunneistrand presides over the major river of this Empire, and thus all of the tributaries running from her river. (Incidentally, my brother is currently being introduced to the methilae of most of them, as the Peacock King seems to own the whole family tree. How convenient.)

'Family tree' is an apt phrase for the dryads. Unlike animisms, dryads for the most part protect one tree, or sometimes even one plant. (I've met cactus dryads in my time and let me tell you, don't try laying down with one of those - they bite more than it's worth enduring.) A dryad also protects the small plants that live under the crown of its tree, and sometimes the wildlife as well. It also protects its saplings, and sometimes even commands them, though thankfully, I've not heard often of that being necessary. But the saplings have their own dryads, so it's more of a parental role as far as I've heard. There is usually one dryad in any forest who has authority over all of the trees and plants of the place - that would be the one who protects the sacred tree, the tree which is the hub of the whole forest. That's starting to get out of my breadth of knowledge, actually - I knew I should have been studying up on this more. But perhaps my brother's current employer will unwittingly pass on a little more on the subject for me.

When it comes to the earth spirits, the murntle, I know very little, for they show themselves very rarely. Most of them don't take nymph-like forms, so I don't think I should lump them into the 'animism' category. They embody land, and tend to avoid mankind due to our prediliction towards defining borders and boundaries that pay no heed to their territorial boundaries. Fire spirits are known as tyrotyrles, but rarely have fixed enough locations to be like the animisms. For the record, their most prominent trait is that they are fantastic enablers when it comes to those of a pyromaniacal persuasion (such as, unfortunately, all of my sisters and one of my brothers). There are too many types of air spirits to name briefly, but the most nymph-like are the spirits of the greater winds, the haerphietl, most times simply referred to as 'harps'.

And then, of course, there are the greater ones, that go beyond 'spirits' and towards the scale of 'gods'. I see none of those in the Peacock King's possession, and hope I won't have cause to search for them. If he had possession of any one of those, his Empire would have caused trouble enough by now to call in more than just a single Poet to investigate.

I count, among the Peacock King's 'possessions' here, a number of dryads along with many more that he claims not to keep in his palace. He has two murntle here, by my complete surprise, and he alluded to a few more of those. Three tyrotyrles, which by my measure makes him a complete idiot, especially considering the few others he claims to have in his palace for lighting and heating. I'm not sure why the complex isn't a pile of cinders yet. (Maybe one of them will sweet-talk Lyric enough to make that happen, even though he's never shown an aptitude for pyromancy. Then again, a lack of aptitude will cause just as many accidents, so he always has that going for him.) He neither has here, nor claims to own elsewhere, any harps. He does have one small air spirit, but she isn't even at the scale for a nymph, let alone one of the winds. And along with her, there are many minor spirits and sprites in his possession, and by his description, in many parts of the palace.

"There's a few in your room, too, Lotus. I expect you've accquainted yourself with them already."

This brings my attention back to more direct eavesdropping. I lean back in on my brother. The Peacock King is standing above him with a smile that's almost mocking. Oh, great. He's making a test of it.

My brother looks as flustered as if this were a pop quiz. He obviously doesn't want to say 'no', but I'm willing to bet it's the truth. "I...hadn't searched my quarters too thouroughly yet. I thought it might be intrusive of me on my first day, and I didn't want to dawdle in my room when I could be earning my residence in it." Oooh, nice. Not enough charm to make the King swallow it, but enough of an attempt that the monarch thinks Lotus is cute for trying.

I feel a keen sense of relief, some tension leaving me that I didn't know I had been keeping. Have I been on edge every time the King has been in the vicinity of my brother? ...Maybe I have.

"Feel free to look around further and familiarize yourself with what you've been given, Lotus. Why bother staying in my palace if you're not going to explore all of the merits?" He then looks ahead and nods sharply, gesturing in front of him with a tilt of his chin. "This is Rocsui-ehellenae. She is my pride."

"...Indeed," is all my brother can breathe out. I don't blame him. Standing before him is a beauty that denies any ability for me to assign it a cliche from my mental archives. I should note that as I am a Poet, those archives are truly vast.

She could be mistaken for a dancing girl if you only relegated her a quick glance in low light. Any longer of a look would refute that assumption. That isn't dancing attire across her bust and down her thighs, cleverly fashioned from feathers and claws. The feathers sprout right out from and fan over her pale skin in thin, soft trails. At her chest they are deep blue, and near her thighs they taper to an emerald green that sparkles as much as its namesake jewel. These feathers are short and round, but longer ones peek out from behind her, curving down to her calves with twists and flourishes, ending in round eye-marks. She is wearing a crown, fashioned of feathers. I cannot tell if they sprout from her head or not. Her fingernails and toenails are copper, tapering into delicate hooked talons. They tap lightly against the floor with each step she takes.

Lyric isn't sure what to say. His mind has halted for just a moment. He knows something is wrong but he doesn't yet want to think about what it is.

I know it, know it from the sight of her. She's no bird-soul fashioned into human flesh, not any type of animism at all. She is what I first assumed Faun to be. A person. And she has the look of the King in her face.

Anyone could spot the resemblance.

Lyric doesn't yet know what to think, but he could easily say the wrong thing now. Compliment her, I whisper into his mind through his temples. Be a gentleman, and show no disfavor.

My brother is an actor, and I become eternally grateful for it as he sweeps a bow to Rocsui-ehellenae. [That's not her name I know that's not her name, I'll know her name if I think just a little longer...] The gesture is low, graceful, and utterly flattering. He catches her hand in his on the rise from his bow, pulls it forward just a bit, "It is my pleasure to make your acquaintance, beautiful damsel," and kisses the back. She tugs it from him as a blush skirts over her face, her hand rising to cover her mouth, her eyes wide. They flick over to meet the Peacock King's. He bursts into laughter, and in that moment Lyric and I both startle so much that we almost switch skins. His grin is wide as he clomps a hand onto Lyric's shoulder.

"Well done! Very well done. And no, Rocsui-ehellenae, my darling, he is no courtier that I've brought from afar to woo you. You know I'd never trade away something so precious to me as you, ever." She looks away at that, but there is a slight smile on her face, as if it pleases some part of her.

Gerald? What is she? Is she...is she his daughter? Lyric's thoughts are reaching a panicked edge. Not that I blame him.

I would have to trace the geneaology to know her exact parentage, but...that she is his daughter is a certainty. Continue to act as if you're meeting a princess. ...You are, in fact.

The Peacock King, meanwhile, is just pleased as punch that Lyric took the course he did. He seems to have delighted in the awkwardness of this situation. He chuckles behind a hand, then shakes his head. "We must move on, dear. Lotus will come visit you later. He will be coming to this room quite a lot."

Lyric, I whisper to my brother as the King begins to lead him towards the exit.

What? My brother's voice is hushed and nervous, as if it were something audible that he was trying to hide from the King next to him.

I calm my tone as much as possible. He doesn't need that to get his nerves up even more. The King has two daughters. I know that much from the intelligence I read before my mission started. You need to keep your eyes open for the other.

He dreads what I'm going to say next, and in a way, so do I.

You'll need to help both of them.

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