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.

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