26 - What Washes Out

I wake up with the full knowledge of where I am, who I'm with, and what I've done the night before.  That means that from this point on, everything will get better for me.

The Peacock King's arm tightens around my chest.  He moans his yawn into my hair, then presses his lips into the back of my neck.  He stretches and the whole bed groans with it.  I also feel extremely tiny in comparison with him, but that's no real difference from any other time.

He strokes a hand through my hair.  "How are you this morning, my dear?"

The groan I make in reply lacks grace and beauty, but it accurately conveys my state.  I must admit that my performance in bed the morning after always leaves much to be desired when it comes to etiquette.  I just forget.  Mornings are crap.  Everyone just pays for the night anyway.

...Please oh please don't show that last part to my Dad.

He pats my head.  "There there.  You wouldn't be the first former Radian to need his coffee in the morning to function, hmm?  Here, now.  I'll have the necessary stimulants brought in while I give you an opportunity to have your bath.  Would you like some breakfast?  Of course you'd like some breakfast.  Off with you."  He tugs on my hair as I begin to crawl out of bed, though.

"...Yes, my King?"

He chuckles at the proper address.  "Nothing, darling Lotus.  I was only lamenting that I wouldn't see this color on you, after this."

I turn to him as I sit up.  He looks so playful, now.  Not frightening.  Something about the morning sunlight flooding in through the sheer curtains in the windows...something about how he smiles now.  It's all so open. Did last night really happen?    "You may dye it as you see fit, if that pleases you."  I'm still playing cards with my words.  Yes, it happened.  It all happened, and I have to live through the results.

His smile is delighted, and very possessive.  He reaches up and tugs on a lock.  "Really, now?  I'll have to take advantage of that."  He sits up and stretches again, reaching his arms over his head, bending them back.  I watch muscles ripple across his back through the motion, entranced.  Then he turns to me, and I blush.  "I expect you're not the only one who naturally puts on shows without realizing it?"  His smile is so coy.  Such a liar.  Of course he knows what he's doing, every moment, every step.

...But, thinking of what happened while he sleepwalked last night...does he really know?  Or is that all a game of pretend as well?

I skirt a naked curtsy.  The last time I did that for a client, they spit their breakfast out.  He laughs.  "Go on.  Enjoy the use of a King's bath."

I make another bow, and then go do so.

* * *


I hurt when I close the door behind me, and he can't see me.  I double over and the tears hit me just as my knees hit the floor.  The emotions wash through my head so fast that I almost pass out.

It's foolish to do this.  I know he can feel it.  Even if he didn't have eyes in this room, which I know he does, he can feel my mind from the next room over.  All that anguish I kept hidden, he'll see it now.  But now that he's out of my sight and there's a good solid door between us, I can't make it stop.  I drag myself to the bathtub.  It's more like a pool.  I catch a glimpse of a naiad before she realizes I'm not the King and smiles politely before flitting away.

My hands brush the water.  It warms at my touch, and a perfume rises from it that complements my natural scent.  I sigh.  I don't even have to wait for it to fill.  The wall it runs up against is entirely mirrored, so I can sit on a bench with the bathwater up to my waist while I reach up to my hair and pull out the hairpins and beads that managed to survive last night.  They clatter to the floor of the bathroom before I plunge my head down into the water.

Another tremor wracks through my body once the warmth surrounds me.  I'm stupid enough to think that at least my tears aren't visible.  He can still feel it.  He can still hear me.  I tried so hard to act perfect around him and now my mask just slips out of my fingers and I can't catch it.

And I can't do anything about that, either, so I'm going to stop fighting it.

The worst of it happens underwater, really.  Less embarrassment.  I have my little tantrum, go through my bit of agony.  I don't want somebody's shoulder to cry on.  I don't want anyone to see me like this.  I don't think it's all past when I'm done, too.  I'm going to go through this again, when I'm finally alone.  Whenever that actually happens, if it ever does.

I miss the days before this happened.

At least I got through some of it, got past enough to not feel like I'm going to pop.  Hopefully it was enough of a pressure release to keep me stable from here on out.  I...I don't think it was, but I can still hope.  I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror.

The black's washing out of my hair, the dye tinting my skin as it trickles over my face and shoulders.  The paint's mostly rubbed off already.  Thankfully, in my case, the black marks really are just paint, unlike the Peacock King's mysterious markings.  I duck my head down again, rubbing my fingers into my hair, working out the rest of the dye.  When I next emerge from the water, I grope around for some soap.  I don't want this taint in my hair anymore.  I don't want him to dye it again, either, but I'll be damned if me telling him that I did want it pleased him to no end.  I don't know why he needs another doll to dress up and I don't know why he wants it to be me, but he's so damn pleased with himself about it.

I treat myself to a nice, slow bath.  I dry myself.  I find a robe that's my size hanging conveniently in the bath, a sign that he planned for this.  Of course.  I turn to the sink, looking into the mirror above it.  I don't really want to touch his makeup, but it seems I won't have to because he's laid out mine here.  Fine.  I can do my duty to my face and arrange my hair properly.  That helps settle me more than anything else I've done in this bathroom, I think.

It's at least nice to see my natural color again.  The world's much better when I'm blonde.

I slide the door open, then, facing him again.  At least when he's in the same room as me I can keep my mask up.  It feels nice to be stable, even if it's faked.  I'm afraid of him, but if I'm pretending I'm not, if I'm acting like I'm not, it's almost as if I'm really not.  Just like the rest of my acting.  Good enough to pass as the real thing, so who will question if it's not?

I even make a flamboyant bow to him.  He only laughs.  "Come, Lotus.  Sit outside with me.  The garden is beautiful in the morning."

We're...pleasant.  He is extremely pleasant, in fact.  It makes me a little angry at him.  It makes me angry that he could treat me the way he did last night, and then pretend as if there was never any of that.  I try not to think about it, because it's useless to do so.  I act charming instead.  He loves my 'charm'.  He makes a few passes at me due to my 'charm', in fact, and I'm clever enough to return the compliments while keeping that particular gambit from actually advancing anywhere.  After all, I've managed to get out of his bedroom twice so far this morning, each a greater distance than the last.  Maybe with more effort I can get even farther away the next time.

And it seems that such a theory might in fact be worth testing further, for after breakfast is done, he waves me away from cleaning it up and tells me that I should prepare for attending Court with him.  "You are a part of my Court, after all, Lotus."  He laughs when he sees my expression.  He knows what I'm thinking.  I make sure to let him know.  "I am sorry for imposing the role of my consort upon you so suddenly, but you performed so beautifully at it, did you not?  You will stand in my Court as my Trainer again, Lotus.  I am not known to keep a regular consort.  Even so, I believe I trust you more than I would trust someone whom I kept for just that role."  He bows his head ever-so-slightly to me as he rises.  "You command more respect than that, with both your abilities and the strength of your loyalty."  He gestures to me.  "I've the necessary garments for you in my wardrobe.  You can help me don mine as well."  He lets out a deep sigh that's mostly show.  "It's such a burden at times, having to wear such complex finery for Court affairs...but we shall bear up under it well, yes?"  He winks.

I can't suppress a snicker in reply.

* * *

Court is more relaxing than I expected.  I'm near the King, yes, but with a varied group of his other servants.  I recognize a few of the nymphs from his garden, bearing up well while dressed in uncomfortable Court finery.  Most important of all, I'm not right next to him and his attention is focused elsewhere for almost the entire audience.  Most of what's discussed is interesting enough to pay a passing amount of attention to, but not worth stressing much about.  I can ignore it all with a clear conscience.  Most of it is about his borders, at any rate, and we all know those are going to stay heavily regulated for the next forever or two.  Though, apparently he's issued a directive easing up a few import restrictions - notably on the type of cigarettes I prefer.  I smile a little.  So self-serving of a measure.

I blink.  Jhe Camden is in the audience.  He's looking right at me...studying me.  I find myself unable to suppress a blush.  He was there for the meeting with my Uncle, after all.  He saw what I was dressed as, then.  What the Peacock King had claimed me to be.  How do I tell Jhe Camden I'm not a consort?  How can I talk with him about my brother?  I don't see Jhe Jenny or Jhe Rachella anywhere around, either.  At least Jax's absence is explained - he's probably ass-deep in horse manure right now.

All questions that sweep out of my mind whenever Jhe Camden steps forward for official business.  I'm too afraid to think about them.  What if the King picks up from me that I'm worrying?

"Ahh, Peacekeeper Briarseal.  You put in word that you had some business to discuss.  Pray, what Armed concern should be raised in this Court?  Does the Jhe o"Radia fare well on his return to his native soil?  I very much hope his journey is swift."

Jhe Camden smiles and skirts a bow that might be better described as a salute.  "He fares well, your highness.  I apologize if my business burdens you.  Seeing as you invited Jhe Dovetail to stay to see your mews, I felt it best to continue training as usual here.  As such it seems that Jhe Jax Cruxradia has been put under my instruction, as he is here for the time being.  I felt it best to send for an escort so that he can return to our headquarters as soon as possible.  In my experience it is always best for any Armed entering a foreign country to give a proper introduction to their royalty, so as not to cause an alarm such as Jhe Cruxradia managed."  He gives a rolling-hand gesture, hurrying himself along.  "For brevity's sake, I will simply introduce him."  He turns that gesture forwards, and it becomes one that prompts someone else to walk forward.

I feel the Peacock King's spike of panic before I even see the figure clearly.  I'm thankful that the King was distracted enough by his emotions not to notice mine.  I almost screamed.

It's Gerald.

"From the soil of Radia, I present to you Jhe Gerude Akribastes."

My brother skirts a very presentable bow.  But he doesn't look like Gerude.  He looks like Gerald, right down to the damn hat, which he holds over his chest like a proper gentleman.  He's even the same height.  I can see why the King is so on edge.  I'm surprised he didn't scream.

My brother Lute can do that same thing, you know.  Look like me.  And I can look just like him too.  There's a certain trick to it.  Looking like Daddy is a lot harder, but I can manage it if I try very, very hard.  The others have an easier time of it.  It's just...well, we're related, technically we have it in us to look like the others.  It's just we usually look like ourselves.

My heart's pounding so much in my chest.  Oh no.  Gerude sees me.  He doesn't make it look like it, though - he looks like he's sneaking a wink to the haerphietl standing next to me, who responds with a smile.

Oh my head.  Oh my heart.  My knees are gonna give out.

I sure hope Jhe Camden told Gerude what's going on.  I sure hope...Jhe Camden understands where my loyalties really are...

"My."  The King stands, and then begins to walk up to my brother.  His pace is slow.  Very regal.  And, I know, also very cautious.  "I must admit, Jhe Akribastes."  He even has trouble not pausing before speaking the name.  I forgot how much respect my Father commands, especially when he catches people off guard.  Even from the Peacock King, who has demeaned the Judge's reach and power at times with his words.  "Your face favors your Father, the Judge, so much that it took me by surprise."  He stops a few feet in front of my brother, scrutinizing him as politely as possible.

Gerude bows his head and makes a gesture of apology.  "Aye, and that it has with many a person before, and you have my apologies for it, your Majesty.  I try not to scare people with my face, but it does it for me far too often without any of my consent.  It's a bit of a bother for my siblings as well, but we all take it with grace, so to speak.  Please, if you would prefer I make myself scarce, I'll certainly keep it in mind."

"Oh!  No, there's no need for such measures.  Don't let me get in the way of Armed operations, by any means.  Go where you must, within the bounds of your Law."  He smiles, and makes a gesture of dismissal. "Thank you for introducing yourself in my Court, Jhe Akribastes."  There it is again.  That pause before he says that name.  Wow, my Dad might be as scary to Ebrellin-i as he is to me!

The King retires to his throne, and it seems Jhe Camden has no further business.  In fact, after Jhe Camden is finished, it seems the King is in a bit of a rush to get past the rest of business and dismiss Court entirely.  I can't imagine why.

Gerude gets one more look at me, and I at him, before we go.  He looks so much like my missing brother.  I miss Gerald so much.  I'm worried.

* * *

He leaves the throne room after the attending audience and Court is dismissed.  He curtly orders me to follow him out "treading within my shadow, and no farther away than that, J'Lotus."

I jump at the way he honors me by speaking my name like that.  In front of the Jhe o'Radia, I thought it was just another way to insult the visiting official.  I didn't think he ever meant that.

I would wonder if he's just playing with me as he would a puppet again, but he's obviously too preoccupied with what Jhe Camden said...and by seeing my brother.

"They are surrounding us, J'Lotus.  You must stay close.  Now is the hour when allies stay close."

"Yes, sir."  He needs responses.  He's sounding a little...well, okay, he's crazier than usual.  He's walking very quickly, now.

...I recognize this path.  I blink.  Yes, I recognize this path.  Is he...is he walking where I think he's walking?

"You are someone I can trust, J'Lotus, because you walk alongside me, you understand me, and most importantly, you know the value of that which I keep."  We walk through.  I feel the wards creep across my skin.  Underground, in what are almost catacombs.  Perhaps they become catacombs, if he keeps someone in there long enough...

I can't find my way in here, but I recognize it all the same.  The dungeon he put Gerald in.

Why is he going here?

...Oh no.  Does he know yet?

"It's important to know what pieces you have captured or in play, J'Lotus.  And...to know the nature of those pieces.  Of all things, it is the most important to always know exactly what it is you have captured.  Perhaps a Poet, yes?  Or perhaps...perhaps more."

Sweat is beading up on his face.

"Jhe 'hAkribastes.  The Judge.  I don't understand.  If it's true, why would he send one of his pawns here to get caught reading my most inconsequential records?"  He approaches Gerald's cell.  I already know what he's going to find, so instead, I watch his face.  I consider that to be a very good indication of whether I'll need to duck, or run.

When he sees the empty cell, there is a fraction of a second of disbelief.  It shifts into a rictus of frozen horror which simply does not leave his face.  I think it might stay there permanently if not for the sound of someone shuffling in from another entrance into this room.

The Peacock King swerves around, grabbing me by the shoulder and hauling me behind him as he arcs his other hand up.  I feel the power swell and it makes my hair stand on end in ways special conditioner will probably have to fix.  But the power gathered within Ebrellin-i doesn't release.  It merely stays, then lingers, then tapers down a little.  Still present, and ready, but on an indefinite hold.

I peek around him, terrified that I may be making a terrible mistake in doing so.

Cade makes a single clap from the door he just walked through, a plume of smoke wafting up from the cigarette tucked between his lips.  The winking red light from the tip reflects in his eyes, an afterimage that is almost all I can remember of him.  I remember his ratty hat, and the faded, dusty leathers and boots he wears.  His face...I can remember the way the light from his cigarette plays across it.  The rest...it's as if he's wearing a veil, and I know he wasn't.

He's just hard to remember, okay?

The Peacock King's voice is woven through with fury, resulting in a tone of snippish ire.  "Jhe Wovenback.  What on trod earth are you doing uninvited in here?"  His hand still holds me behind him.  He gives my arm a warning squeeze.  Silence.  Listen.

Cade skirts an odd, skittish bow that does little to convey any of the proper respects it should.  He even holds his hat over his chest.  "The Jhe o'Audiva Rocale.  Your Grace.  How lucky that our paths should cross."  He remains slightly stooped instead of rising fully from his bow, his eyes raising up to meet Ebrellin-i's.  It looks more like a cringe than a bow, and he's obviously ready to dart away at any moment.

I can feel the Peacock King's anger.  I can feel it in the tension of his fingers around my wrist.  I wince.  I know his rings will leave indentations in my skin.  Already they feel cold and hard against it.  I can also feel his anger as a palpable thing from his mind, and worse yet...I can tell Cade feels it too.  I hate writing this, right now.

I hate writing it because Cade was there.  I just hate it.

"Where is he, Jhe Cade?"  The King's tone is barely held in calm.  I'm waiting for him to attack at any second now.  I wonder if Cade is doing the same thing.

"I put him away for you, my leige.  He rests easy, safely...securely.  He is near."  His eyebrows raise.  "Oh.  Are you angered?  By my presumption, it seems?  I was only keeping your safety in mind, my leige.  What with so many Armed roving about your Kingdom, while you were away...best to keep him more hidden, yes?"

My wrist almost twists in Ebrellin-i's grasp.  I bite my lip against the squeak I want to make.  I don't want any attention on me.  I don't think Ebrellin-i wants attention on me, either.  I am happy to indulge his wishes in this matter.  "Jhe Cade.  I keep any stray Poets that wander here.  I attend to their needs.  I ensure their safety and security.  You may provide other services, when I request them, and pay you for them.  Under no circumstances are you to volunteer those services without my permission.  Do you understand that?"

"Oh, yes, of course I understand, my leige.  Pardon the intrusion.  Would you prefer I move the Armed back up into this Poet's cell, then, and wait for his comrades to come and find him where you've seen fit to pen him up?  Ah, it seems I've found a problem of yours.  Perhaps you'd like to tell me which service of mine you desire to purchase, now?"

Ebrellin-i makes a cutting gesture.  "The service of absolute silence, if you please, whilst I think."

"Ah, of course."  He makes no more sounds, then, but his face is too devilishly implike for me to trust that to last very long.

Ebrellin-i stands there for a few moments, his eyes drifting over the cell while his attention stays sharply focused on Cade.  "Where is he kept, now?  Have you found his Arms?"

"He's kept in my suite, my leige.  There has been no sign of his Arms.  Would you like that I should search the Palace for them?  It would be very little trouble."

"Don't search.  You'll rouse their suspicions.  You'll rouse the attentions of his Arms most of all, which is the last thing we need.  I want to see him.  I'll decide what to do with him, from here on out.  He's not to be moved anywhere else unless upon my say-so.  Do I have your understanding in this matter, Jhe Cade?"

"But of course you do, my leige."  He skirts a complex bow that does nothing for dignity.  "Should I show you his accomodations later this evening, then?  Surely you would like a rest after such a long audience in your Court this morning."

"Surely I would like to see him now, with no delays, Jhe Cade.  Lead."  He juts his chin toward the door Cade entered through.  Cade shrugs, though I can tell he is a bit disgruntled that his suggestion was not taken well.  He walks through.  I follow the Peacock King closely.

After all, I've no choice in the matter - his grip is as firm as ever as he pulls me along behind him.


25 - In Your Room

He still holds my arm.  His other hand falls on my shoulder like a lead weight.  Like a dead weight, in fact.  I get an eerie mental image of a corpse's hand grabbing me.  His grip is anything but dead, though.  Not only is it strong, but his fingers twitch.  I can feel the tips of his long fingernails poking into my shoulder, twitching a bit.  He's angry.  He can't keep his hands still, he's so angry.  He's angry and he's holding me and he could just shake me like a doll right now and I could do nothing but snap in his arms.  Father wouldn't even get a letter about it.  I don't make a sound.  I don't breathe.  The only movement there is to me is the gentle thumping of my heart and the strands of unknotted hair that blow in the light breeze.

He yanks me back and leads me out of the garden without a word.  I hear him command doors to open.  I hear him command globed tyrotyles to light.  I hear all manner of commands, and all I do is walk, in perfect pace with his.  I try to keep my mind blank.  I've been a servant before.  I've been in Courts before.  I've been through punishment.

It's different than being punished by my Father, when I'd just cry and plead.  In a Court, things are taken with dignity and grace.  There's something I prefer about the childhood way of things.  Crying is a release.  Tantrums are another sort of release.  There's no finality, not like we understand finality later in life.  There's no terror quickening in your chest into a cold understanding so palpable that you could take it out and set it into jewelry.

He's not leading me to places I know, but I still recognize them.  Because I know him, and I recognize these places as his.  I know we're traveling deeper into the Palace, to its heart.  I can feel his strength here, feel more of his grip tightening around me.  This is his sanctuary.  The center of the spider's web.

My heart gives one tiny bolt of panic, and I can tell he feels it, but keeps guiding me on.  Finally, we reach it.  The double-doors, emblem of the peacock spread across them in swirling enamel and gold, open at his breath, and close behind us at his will.

I kneel.  I don't think there is a command.  There doesn't need to be, here.  He could have thought the command, and I would do it.  And part of me wonders if he didn't even need to bother with the command at all.  Perhaps all kneel to him in this room.

It's certainly something to think about, as his fingers sink into the looping knot of my hair knuckle-deep and curl into it, gripping me.  He pulls down, guiding me to look up.  I do so just as he directs, and he directs slowly.  My eyes immediately go to his.  That, in itself, is utterly foolish, but I know casting my gaze down would be a farce here, and an ill-played one at that.  His rainbow eyes lock me in place the way chains won't.  There's very little I see besides them.  The outline of his crown and the pearls lining it.  The smoky sheen of the slitted jewel set in the center is just a haze to me now.  The black marks on his cheeks stand out, branded into my vision.  It's hard to recall his expression, but I remember it now: he was patient.  Almost pitying.  And furious, absolutely furious.

I feel the sting on my cheek almost a minute after that butterfly-wing feel of him slapping it.  He's very good at this, very well-practiced.  As expected, for one so renowned as a trainer of pets.  He managed to curl his hand in such a way that his rings didn't strike me.

It wasn't even that hard of a blow.  It didn't really hurt.  Not like I've been hit before.  Hell, my brothers hit harder than that.  [My sisters, of course, hit MUCH harder.]

Then he pushes me down by that hold in my hair, twisting as he does, and I manage to wince.  Schooling your face isn't quite as important when you're facing the floor, and when your master is angry.  Being hurt appeases him then.  I wish I didn't know this.

My nose is almost rubbing the carpet, my hair already dragging on it.  All I can hear is my own breathing.  It's much more ragged than I expect.  My vision is blurry, and waves are rushing in my ears.  I don't ever want to know how powerful he is, under the masks and behind the veils, in his private sanctuary, with nothing to save me.  I don't ever want to know, but Gods and Kings help me, I think I'm about to.

His fingers slide out of my hair, strands snagging on the rings and pulling.  I hear the sounds of them popping, hear my nerve endings singing counterpoint to it.  I blur a little more, but I stay on my knees, and I stay still.  He stands over me.  I feel like the tiniest person in existance.

He walks away.  I stay put.  Minutes go by and are no different from one moment to the next.  Years could go by.  I stay as I am placed and don't move a muscle.  There's nothing outside of this tiny space I am occupying, because he's not paying attention to me, or if he is, he desires I do nothing different.

"Rise to your knees.  I want to see your face."  His voice is about ten feet in front of me.  Considering how significantly lower it sounds in direction, I'm fairly sure he's seated.  He sounds calm.  Almost pleasant.  Which means, if his fury is guiding him, he has it on as tight a leash as he's been holding me.

I rise, back straight.  I fold my hands in my lap.  My shoulders are even and my posture is pretty.  My eyes go to his, which may be a mistake, but I've always been prone to looking up instead of down.  The eye in his crown catches me and freezes my thoughts before I even see his true eyes.  They're like a ghostly aftereffect, now.  I'm a puppet.  A puppet in thrall.  I wonder, idly, if he's ever taken Faun into this room.

He's twitching his hand, seemingly torn as to what gesture to make.  I wonder if he'll clench his fist, twist it on the pivot of his wrist, and end me in this spot here.  I wonder how much I'm worth, how much I've ever been worth.

He holds his hand up, pinching thumb and forefinger almost all the way together.  I don't move.  I don't blink.  I barely breathe, and I'm fairly sure that for a moment my heart stops beating.  He twitches his fingers just slightly apart, enough that blood passes through my body and air comes in and out of my lungs in slow, paced breaths.

His eyes narrow.  He cocks his head the tiniest degree, earrings swaying and twinkling with the motion.  He, for all the love I've lost in this life, smiles.  I wonder how quickly I'll die.

"You're a precious thing, Lotus.  Precious to me.  Tell me, why does that mangy cur, the so-called Jherent o'Radia, desire to take you?"  His eyes flash, almost glow in this low light.  His fingers twitch in a gesture that is a complex spell.  My tongue is unknotted, and if he bade it, would likely crawl out of my mouth and walk on its own as a free individual.

"He would like to take me from you, of course.  He fancies me one of his own, wants to remove me from Aurocan soil, away from your influence.  Yet another weapon procured, yet another piece captured.  I am your pawn, and he wants me."  Oh hells and high waters that drown their screams, how did I manage to not indict myself just now?  My tongue still trots out words after he makes a 'come-hither' gesture.  "I would apologize, my Lord.  I am ten years out of his empire.  He may wish to claim me as his own, due to the geographical accident of my birth."

He cocks his head in that slow way again, weighing all that I say.  "And where do you come from originally, Lotus?"  He twitches his index and middle fingers towards him, tugging the words out of my throat.

"My Father hailed from the Radian Capitol, where I was raised until I left it.  My mother was a haerphietl, with no country of citizenry of course.  I severed all ties with family when I left."

His eyes narrow.  I am so thralled that right now I can't even be afraid of the fact that he could ask me who my Father is right now, and I would have no choice but to answer.

"Do you know the Jherent o'Radia, my Lotus?"  He twirls a finger.  Words reel out from my mouth.

"I knew him.  He saw me from time to time in his capitol.  He found me entertaining.  He gave me gifts at times."  I'm counting my blessings as I listen to my words.  I'm still so lucky that he's so intent on Uncle Lui that he hasn't even thought of who I might be related to.

His eyebrows raise.  "Did he favor you?  Has he taken you into his bed?"

I almost choke at the last question.  "He seems to have favored me, as he gave me gifts and paid me many compliments.  But he never showed his appreciation in the fashion you asked of."

Something about his expression disturbs me.  He's pleased about something, and somehow it's making the shadows in his cheekbones darker, making his marks spread.  I don't realize he's moved until his hands are on my face and he's leaning down over me.  His hair strokes my cheek, and his perfume washes over me.  It almost sends me into unconsciousness, and I don't know why.

I do know when his hands twine around the back of my neck, nails scratching at it ever so lightly, his lips so close to brushing my throat that a change in my breathing would have him kissing me.  He leans in and licks at my pulse.  My chest jerks, a gasp sucking into my chest, and then he pulls me against him, arms weaving behind me, hair draping over my shoulders and sliding down my back in a way that reminds me too vividly of the spider's web I thought of earlier.

"I have you first, then, darling Lotus?"

"Of course, my Lord."  I manage to blink.  My voice is so even and tempered that I wonder if it is my own. I still do wonder, even as I write this.

"And you'll not desert me for such a cur?"  His hand slides down behind me, sinking under the sash of my robe, reaching lower than that to grope me.  I squeak.

"My Lord, I'd not give loyalties away that you keep so well guarded."  He holds me closer, biting at my ear.  He's standing, now.  Pulling me up, guiding me to walk even as his hands climb over me, around me, and in some cases, inside me.  I end up sprawled on his bed, my open robes tangling and merging with his intricately patterned sheets.

* * *

After, I lie in the bed, turned away from him, my cheek resting on the silken sheet.  The coils of my hair slide down, tugged halfway out of the knot at the back of my head.  I remember that so clearly.  That alien shade of black spilling over my cheek and spreading in tendrils across the sheet.  That chill to the air, matching it.  The pearls strung along a few of the strands console me.  They're like the tears I have to bury deep inside me right now.  They glint so warmly in the dark of this room.

His hair is draping over me too, of course.  Long loops of it, with that green sheen I've seen nowhere else in my life.  One thick clump is wrapped around my forearm, more of it rippling over my hip.  Ensnaring me and clothing me at the same time, holding me close.  My eyes trail down the chains and beads that loop down through his mane.  They're so abundant and complex, an impossible maze to follow.

I almost slip into sleep then, but I don't think it was going to be sleep.  It feels too numb and cold for that.  I was probably going to black out, which is its own welcome respite, and I start to long for the opportunity to return, so I can take it this time.

But instead, he shifts, pulling his arm in and tugging me closer against him.  His arm is looped over my chest, his fingers spread over my shoulder, gripping it.  It's almost tender, like he's cupping a butterfly.

I have been treated like no butterfly tonight.

He starts to nibble on my other shoulder.  I hear the sheets behind me rustle, or maybe it's just his hair.  His hair - I've become so lost in it tonight, over and over.  I really don't know where the end of it is, only that I'll never wriggle out of its snares.  I think it's looped around my ankles, even.

There's another blur, that mind-shudder.  This time I really do lose a few moments, and then he's on top of me, and definitely in the middle of something again.  Well, whatever I've missed, I've apparently performed well during it.  Everything today has been about me performing for an audience, hasn't it?  Building a mask and maintaining it and making others believe that there is no mask and it's all really my face.  It's the most difficult now, you know - now, when it's so easy to let my emotions slip, when he's so close to me and there's nothing between us except more of each other.  I want to black out again and wake up when it's over.

It's like flashes of the act, or like it's all disintegrating.  First he's whispering holy things to my ear, next my nails are scraping down his back while I scream out the names I have for him, next he's holding me close, cooing to me.  He's too close to me.  His hands are groping me in ways that make me gasp while his mind is wrapped around mine in ways that are making it break.  I think at one point I beg him to stop but it just stammers into frenzied pleas to keep going.  I have this tiny certainty inside me that he knew what I really meant, and deemed my request unworthy of filling.

We'd been close in the carriage.  That was another type of ensnaring, but I was snaring him just as much as he was snaring me.  This is different.  I was dragged into here.  I was forced to kneel.  I'm still being forced to kneel, only I'm bowed over his knees, now.  I don't want to be here.  I don't...

There's some sort of cruel mercy to him, when it's over.  It's felt like it was over several times already, but maybe my mind broke and mixed it all up, and I'm just remembering it all out of order.  He cups my cheek, near the end.  He gives me a kiss, near the end.  He calls me beautiful, devoted, loyal.  He settles down with me, curls around me.  I remember Hespirides.  I feel nothing like her.  I could never be so quiet, so docile, so perfect for him.  But I am his pet, right now, just as collared as Faun, just as much a possession as Rocsui-ehellenae.  He strokes my hair, one slender fingernail parting down the length of it, over and over, and my mind begins to still with each motion.  I realize he's spelling me into sleep right as I sink into it.  Escaping into what I know is a cage.

Except I don't really sleep, then, and I think he doesn't notice that.  He's so pleased with himself and everything else that he just wraps an arm around me and pulls the sheets up under my chin.  His breath is soft against my neck, whispering no words, only sighs of peace.

For awhile, I think I really might be asleep.  I wish that I were.

What happens next is much worse for the fact that it isn't a dream.

* * *

I still think I'm asleep, though, right up until he moves.  The arm draped across me slides away, the many tendrils of hair wrapped over and around me drawing back.  Smooth as silk, they flow over my body like water.  Goosebumps crawl down my back and legs, but I don't move, don't even shiver.  He's cold.  He was warm when he took me.  Too warm, even, on all levels.  My mind burned from it.  He was warm when he tried to coax me into sleep and, for whatever reason, managed to fail.  He was warm when he himself fell asleep.

There's no warmth to him now, and I'm thankful he's drawing away, climbing off of the bed.  The sound of him sliding away is creepy, though - as if he's slithering off.  Off the bed, and across the floor - I can see him walking now.

Oh gods.  He's nothing more than a black shadow, looming, flowing, oily...

...No, it's his hair.  Cloaking his naked body, spreading behind him like a robe.

I try not to watch but I'm too afraid to even close my eyes.  I don't want him to see me move.  I don't want him to notice me anymore.  If he could just forget, and I could go home...but, what about Gerald?

Oh no, I can't think about Gerald in here, and I've been such a good boy about that. What if he picks up my thoughts and learns the truth?  Then Gerald's lost.

There's no danger anyhow, though.  Watching him makes all thoughts of Gerald leave my head.  All thoughts of anything else.  He shifts his hips, brings up his hands.  I see him in profile.  The paint's been wiped away from his face sometime during our contortions in the bed, but the black marks over his cheeks and around his eyes still remain, as if they're tattooed on.  He's so deathly pale right now that the paint might as well have remained.  His movements are slow, drifting, as if his arms are on tethers.  More graceful and controlled than a marionette...like a dancer, even.

His face is blank of any expression, and it clicks for me, finally: he's walking in his sleep.  But his eyes are wide open.

A cold dead chill rolls over my shoulders and all down my body.  His irises are pure white, with no pupil.  It's like staring at a long-dead corpse, or a blind man.  He raises his arms again with the grace of a swan.  I see that darkness puddle around him and billow out into a set of black robes I've never seen before.  They're not like his usual robes at all.  They hang down, sleek and narrow, so black that it completes the resemblance to a living shadow.  The front seam of the robe blossoms into the pattern of a red rose on his chest that's like a smear of fresh blood.

It's so chilly in here that I'm waiting for my breath to fog.

He makes a gesture, then, drawing his hand in to indicate himself in a slow bow to someone.  Something.  I don't understand, though.  He's facing the full-length mirror on the wall.  No one's in there, save his reflection.

A tiny bit of bile hits the back of my throat as reality twists itself on me.  His reflection is facing in the same direction that he is, both of them turned away from me.  That's not possible.  His reflection is standing in a different room than I'm lying in, than Ebrellin-i is standing in.  The floor looks like it should be polished granite, but it's swirled in dizzying patterns of white and black.  I've never seen this kind of rock before.  I don't think it appears in nature.  It just makes the hair on the back of my neck prickle even more.  The room is vast, a colossal hall with a row of columns on each side of Ebrellin-i, leading down to the front, where there is a raised dais made of the same white and black banded material.  Standing on it is a tall chair.  Elegant and fine, it looks like it belongs to a dining set more than it looks like a throne.  I think it's wood, with bright red lacquer.

It's empty.

...I think so, at least.  For some foreboding reason, I'm starting to hope so.

Ebrellin-i looks up to the throne, then immediately casts his gaze down, as if from a glare.  He flinches so hard that I feel the backlash of fear from it.  He starts to speak softly, but is cut off by a twist of sound that almost might be a bark, but it's...warped.  My brain backpedals in horror.  It's another language, and I have the most awful hunch about what it is...

I hear more of it, as Ebrellin-i immediately cringes down.  A whole sentence of it, if a long speil of it in some sort of varied lack-of-tone and misuse-of-pitch is supposed to be a sentence, in that language.  I don't know if that language has sentences.  I can't even say that it has words.  I didn't think I'd ever even hear it in my life - no, I just prayed and hoped that I never would, as everyone else in their right mind does.

The blight of sound casts itself from the throne, from the throne's occupant.  I know where this is now.  I know who Ebrellin-i is in attendance to.  It makes sense that I couldn't see him.  You don't really see...this man.  Person.  ...Thing?  All I know is that most people call him male, and all of them refer to him as a King.  Like Uncle Lui and Ebrellin-i.  Except that while those two might have a few slights thrown against them at times, they are most often referred to by 'Jhe'.  I've never heard anyone refer to this King as anything but 'Jherent'.  The Jherent Nul.

He hates all who live, and anything that helps them achieve that state of living.  Hell, I think he probably hates the dead, too.

I hear that language come out of Ebrellin-i's mouth, now.  I'm ashamed that he knows it.  I...I thought so much better of him than that.  I think it's a name.  Some name for this...this thing that the world refers to as a King.  The Nul.  Ebrellin-i speaks it in a beseeching tone.  A polite tone.  Begging, pleading, beseeching.

He's...the Nul's servant.

The Jherent Nul chuckles in response. It's like hearing moths die midair, dead wings rustling down as they drift.  I finally see something on the throne.  The Nul must be moving.  Space is warping, twisting, casting shadows and reflections where none should be.  I still don't see a real body, but I can watch the warps where it moves, see an outline.  Rings glint off of his hand, the dull sheen of dead metal mixing with arcane sigils and warped stones.  The hand...maybe he's wearing armor, or maybe his fingers really are sharp, thick, barbed talons.  Like razors linked together.  No wonder they reflect and warp so much around them. I can actually track his gestures.  When his hands flip up enough, I actually see his palms.  They're visible, the only concrete things.  Bright red.

I realize it's because they're covered in blood.  My gaze casts to the throne again.  That's not lacquer.  The chair is just covered in so much fresh blood that it's glinting in the same way that varnish would.

He points to the floor.  Not even forceful.  The point is made, and of course, I of all people would know that a well-trained servant needs no punctuation added to a command to know to act swiftly.  The Peacock King falls to the floor, robes pooling around him like a puddle of night, hair floating to settle on the floor in serpentine coils.  The whole collapse happens in one swift movement of sad beauty.  Because, of course, the most well-trained of servants will try to please their masters in any way they can, with any action.

He bows lower than he forced me to bow to him.  I hear his earrings jangle, as his hair slides to hang down around his face.  He slips and lets out a tiny shiver.  Even worse...I hear him whimper.

Oh no.  Ebrellin-i.  Even I know this is a master you stay silent for.

The Nul sweeps an arm sideways in a flurry of glints and sparks, as if the air itself railed against the assault.  The Peacock King is knocked sideways across the floor, sprawling, robes trailing behind him, the sweep of his long hair marking the trajectory of his path.  He doesn't move, doesn't flinch.  He stays where his master's put him.  I actually feel relief.

...I'm afraid for him.

The Jherent Nul beckons upward, then.  Rise.

Ebrellin-i swells upward like a cobra, swaying from side to side.  Once he gets to his feet, he takes one tottering step toward the Jherent Nul.  He almost falls forward before an unseen force lifts him up. He glides toward the throne, bare toes dragging inches above the floor, head tilted back on his neck, hands dangling limp from his wrists.  He almost tips in his trajectory.  Someone chuckles from the side.  From the shadow of a column near the Jherent Nul's throne, only a pace or so away.

Is that...Cade?  Blowing twisted pools of pipesmoke into the Peacock King's path, barely containing his mirth.  Wearing more than what I saw before of his faded leathers and dusty boots.  Wearing a hooded black robe similar to Ebrellin-i's, but more ornate, with a pattern of green streaks of paint falling down the front.  It looks like dying leaves.  There's a black mark across his face as well, but Cade himself is so hard to describe that I can't capture the mark, either.  He's almost as hard to describe as the Nul is, and I wonder for a moment if that's not coincidence.

The Peacock King stops, then sinks to his knees right in front of the Jherent Nul's throne, casting ripples, but no reflection, into the gathering pool of blood there.  He's shaking from the proximity of whose space he's sharing, barely able to stay up at all.  He's lapsing into a fit.  All I hear is laughter, as the Peacock King seizes, contorts, then crumbles to the floor in a final shudder.

"Fitting that you should be the one to make him dance, my Lord," says Cade, a smile twisting into his face.  There's a light to his face when he looks upon his King, then.  Some sort of adoration I'd never expect to see from him for anything.

The Jherent Nul extends a finger, crooks it upwards in one motion that would be delicate if any other person made it.  Ebrellin-i rises to his feet again.  He is perfectly still and devoid of expression.  I start to wonder if he's even alive anymore.

The marks have webbed out across his face now, spreading like an inkblot.  They slide into and over his eyes and swirl in the whites of them.  He speaks, now, the words clear, concise and emotionless.  Everything is perfectly pronounced and delivered.

"What use may I be to you, my Lord?"

It twists in my chest, hearing him say those words.  Even after what he's done to me, after what he's done to my brother and Faun, after what I've seen him do so far tonight.  It's like a betrayal, like a kind of heartbreak.  I can't believe it of him.

I can't believe the Peacock King would serve like this.  Not him.  I don't know why.  Maybe it's Hespirides, maybe it's his children...why?  Why would he do this?  He's so proud, so strong...why be the puppet of the foulest person in existence?  Why make himself a slave to this?!

But he only bows lower, awaiting instruction.

"Radia still stands tall, looming over our Kingdoms, 'Ebre-schtullin'eh.  What will we do to remove this obstacle that you have been assigned, yet have not toppled in all of this time?"  I don't understand.  The Jherent Nul's voice is clear as a bell in my ears.  Is he not talking in nul-speak anymore?

No...that's not the Jherent Nul at all.  Cade is delivering his orders from his place at the side of the throne.  He's the Nul's Herald.

The Peacock King makes a gesture of obedience to the King, then bows again.  "I have plans that are even now coming to fruition.  I have seeds that still grow where I planted them by your command.  My agents spread, unseen, and I take theirs and trap them, train them, break them.  Radia is a slow game, but an artful one which I play expertly.  Please watch my next moves, my Lord.  I will not disappoint you.  I will never fail your trust, I promise."

There's a strange thrum in the air as the shadows where the Nul's face would be twist into what must be a grin.  He's purring.  I throw up a little in my mouth.

The Jherent Nul makes a gesture, commanding the Peacock King to step away and stand at attention in the center of the room.

Cade grins, and delivers the order with another puff of smoke.  "Very well.  Dance for me, then, and prove it."

Ebrellin-i sweeps gracefully in an arc across the floor, weaving in ways that I...I've learned these dances.  I've taught them to slaves.  Ebrellin-i has even instructed me to teach them to Faun, as part of his training.

He's so beautiful, but it cuts me to watch him go through the steps, hair sweeping behind him in arcs of strange warped patterns.

He dances on, and on.  It goes on for hours, and he never falters, not one step.  His feet must hurt so much. I hear them slap bare against the floor, when they make any sound at all.  He doesn't wane, doesn't show his fatigue.  He only makes that tiny fake-smile that Court dancers so often make.  He only stops when the Jherent Nul raises his hand and commands it.

The Peacock King falls to his knees on the spot, hair billowing around him until it sinks to the floor.  The Jherent Nul makes a gesture of dismissal, razored fingers sawing through the air and making it bleed.

"Go now."

The mirror blurs, sliding into a true reflection of the room.  I see Cade's face linger in it, grinning in the distance, before the scene finally fades completely.

The Peacock King lies on the floor, naked.  There's no trace of the robe he was wearing.  He remains as such for a few minutes.  I stare, reminding myself to blink, my eyes burning from suppressing the reflex so much during this waking nightmare.

Ebrellin-i picks himself up off of the floor.  He's barely moved on this side of the mirror, but his motions show heavy fatigue and weariness so deep that I'm surprised he makes it into the bed.  He curls around me again, then, hair falling over my shoulders.  He's panting in exhaustion.  His breath is warm against my neck, and his skin is warm against me.

He doesn't feel like a corpse anymore.

Somehow with that realization, sleep comes to me, nightmares ebbing into it like broken reflections from the mirror.


24 - Your Move

We return to the Palace in the early morning.  Ebrellin-i seems to welcome the sight of his home.  I have to pretend at excitement - after all this time out of doors it's like greeting a cage.  On the other hand, I can look forward to a bath.  Perhaps that's why the King is so happy!  Wait...maybe that means I smell.

We disembark from our carriage, servants unloading baggage and bringing it inside to be put away or packed. The Armed retire their horses to the stables and go to their own quarters.  Ebrellin-i steps off to the side to receive some news from a nervous-looking servant.  I watch the King's face slowly twist into horror, and then panic.  He straightens up, trying to compose himself.  He manages to school his expression into a deadpan, takes a few deep breaths, and then leans down and whispers something to the servant.  It must be instructions, because the servant bows and then turns on his heel and dashes off with the importance of someone who has a lot of things to attend to.

Ebrellin-i brings his hands up, and frets with his hair, the gesture so nervous I can barely believe he's making it.  Then he flings his hands back down to his sides, takes me by the arm, and stalks into the Palace so fast that I have to run to keep up.

I've never seen the King in such distress.  Even when he defended his actions to me in the Valley of Hespiredes, he had a certain calm to him, a manner in his bearing.  Now, that is lost.  There's anger somewhere behind that calm mask.  A low, burning rage, and I'm afraid to know what the source is.

I don't think he's found me out.  But I'm still on edge.

He leads me into my suite, sits me in front of the mirror, and guides me to slide my robes away.  "Lotus, pay attention now.  Today will be a busy day, and you will play the key role."  He smooths a hand over my bare shoulder.  I feel his nails trail across my skin and inadvertently shiver.  He gives my head a pat.  "Your clothing will be here soon.  I'm having it tailored specially for your figure.  But we must work on your hair, now."  His hand sinks into the ponytail at the back of my head, then pulls the band holding it out.  The whole honey-colored mess falls down around my shoulders.

He looks at me through the mirror, studying how my hair falls, how it changes the line of my jaw.  He makes a tiny smirk.  "Oh, such looks.  Sweet irony, as much as my brother might claim I'm misusing the word."

I blink.  He chuckles at my confusion.

"Don't worry your pretty head about it, Lotus."  He gathers my hair up in his hand, letting the strands fall through.  "Hmm...yes.  You'll need a bath."  His hands brush over my neck, then trail down my back.  I get goosebumps again.

He leans down, chin hovering right over my shoulder.  His breath rustles the strands of hair by my cheek, tickling it.  "Come.  Let's see what I have to work with."

I follow as bidded, barely able to breathe.

* * *

When he finishes, we inspect the end product in a full-length mirror.

He sighs, hands still clasped around my shoulders, holding me just-so.  "Beautiful.  My cherished one,"  He leans down, breath tickling my cheek again, "you're so lovely that no one would believe you were flesh and blood, were your arm not weaved with mine."  He extends his hand.  "If you please?"

I extend my hand, and he weaves his wrist and forearm with mine, our fingers twining together.  "Perfect," he whispers.

I...I have to accord him some credit.  By someone's standards, I am very near a vision of perfection.  My hair is black, the hue just a tint towards dark brown.  It falls similar to my usual style, the two clumps still hanging in front of my ears.  But in the back, it's caught up in a looping knot, twining into a web of hairsticks and chains and beads.  My ears peek out from the hair hanging in front of them, the tops delicately capped with gold ornaments that imitate pointed ears.

My body is draped in robes far finer than I've ever worn, nor likely will again.  They are very nearly as fancy as the King's, with layers and knots and sashes and embroidery so complex that I'm not really sure how I got into them...nor do I have any clue how I'll get out.  He's even slid rings onto my fingers.  I'm pretty sure they're more valuable than I am.  I am also very sure that each one has spells woven into it.  Spells of binding, controlling...

I shiver, though I manage to keep it discreet.

Jewelry and clothing and shoes and hair.  And then...then he's also done something to my face.  I keep wanting to grimace in the mirror and track how the marks shift as I do so.  The paint feels so light and is so well-mixed that I keep forgetting I'm even wearing it.  My face is now as pale as his is painted, that familiar mask of white looking quite creepy as it stares back at me in the mirror.  It...shifts my features somewhat.  Smooths out shadows and angles, marks of distinction.  It makes me look much more like the doll he's treated me like this morning.

...But no one paints dolls like he's painted me.

A black band wraps over my face, over where my eyes are.  My eyelids are also black, so my eyes stare out of a band of shadow.  Marks on my cheeks compliment the mask, and a dot of black on my lower lip.  The entire affair echoes him, as do the clothes, jewelry, and hair.  Really, the only things that don't mark me as his own are my eyes.  They stare out of the black mask, brilliantly blue, two lost sapphires.

His hand slides over my cheek.  The makeup doesn't smear, doesn't flake.  He chuckles.  "To think I'd see you like this, after how you first appeared in my Court, Lotus.  You've come a long way in such a short time."

He turns, and leads me out the door.

"Now, come.  As you've already learned, the second most important part of making an impression is presenting yourself flawlessly to your audience, maintaining control of them through that."  He smirks.  "The most important, of course, is who that audience is."

He leads me on.

* * *

I blink as we step out into the daylight.  We're in a shady alcove, but it's still a very sunny, warm day out.  This is one of the inner gardens that Ebrellin-i keeps in his private suites.  In this area, the security is very high, even though it doesn't appear as such at all.  I can feel the wards, though.  It's near the heart of his sanctuary.  I'm surprised we're meeting anyone here.  That he would take someone this deep into his guarded places...maybe it's a high official?  Someone who requires just as much security as he?

Well, that's strange to think about.  I can't think of many people of that high a stature, and of that very few, I expect none of them to be here.

We step from the stone path into a paved clearing where there is cushioned patio furniture.  There is a table set out in the center, a chessboard sitting in the middle of it.  There are two chairs at it, facing each other.  Another, smaller table to the side has an elaborate tea set.  There is a seat by it, as well.  Other chairs abound, but are far off to the side or under the shade.

I see several guards, all wearing a very familiar uniform, one not from this country.  The chill is already on my neck, now, but I somehow manage to fight it off.  Next, I see Jhe Camden, standing behind one of the chairs at the chess table.  His posture is perfect, his back utterly straight, his uniform impeccably clean and spotless.  His glasses glare in the sunlight.  I can't see if his expression changes at the sight of me.

But worse than that is the man sitting in the chair in front of Jhe Camden.

If it were my Father, I somehow think it might be better.

I wait for the Peacock King's signal before I make my bow.  I'm serving under his protocol now, much as it pains me at this moment.  He stands right in front of the table before he stops, extending his hand to the side just a bit, guiding me into my next action.  It's strangely clear just what he wants me to do at this juncture...but then, that's not strange, considering how many binding charms of his I'm wearing now.  I sweep a low bow, my hair brushing the ground in the motion before I quickly rise, taking perfect posture again.  Throughout the motion he never loosens his grip on my arm.

"My esteemed colleague, Jhe o'Radia, allow me the honor of introducing my consort, J'Lotus d'Audiva Rocale."  He gives a flourishing gesture, indicating my person, then leads me to my seat, which is apparently by the tea table.  At least serving tea is well within my training and expertise.

"A singular pleasure, I am sure," the visiting King intones so dryly that I make a note to check my hair for split ends later.  His eyes skirt over me, looking at my makeup and clothing for what might be the third time since he first laid eyes on me.  He's schooling his expression so well that I think any shock will be explained away by the Peacock King taking a consort to what is obviously a diplomatic audience.  I, luckily, can easily explain away my awkwardness here as the shock of being introduced as Ebrellin-i's consort.  Of course, I think it's no matter to him one way or the other.

The Peacock King is gloating so much now that he might as well be sitting on a nest of golden eggs.

Uncle Lui gives me one more nod before turning his full attention back to the King.  Before he turns away, though...

His eyes pin me, and I know he's wondering what the hell his nephew is doing in a place like this.  There's absolutely no use in hoping that he doesn't recognize me.  Uncle Lui recognizes everyone.  It's part of his job in, like, running a whole empire.  He also just...I don't know...sees.  Father does it too, but people expect it of him because he's the Judge.  I don't really get it and I don't know the difference, but I think Uncle Lui sees even more than Father does.  He just...well, he doesn't always tell on us.

I...I don't really have much hope of that still being the case.  There's no way.  Maybe Jhe Camden will tell Jhe o'Radia of the situation, but...well, Uncle Lui is my Uncle through my Father's side, and they're brothers and all...

Oh great bloody seas and big fat blubbery whales I'm in trouble.  Even the Peacock King couldn't protect me once word got back to my Father, even if I thought it could come to that or would come to that.  I'm just some puppet being jerked in the middle of someone's silly game and I didn't even mean to be here.  How did I even get here?

You know what the worst part is?  Remembering this:

'You're his favorite nephew, you doof.'  Jhe Katherine rolls her eyes.  I always feel very strange around her and I try to avoid her at all costs.  It tends to be good for the health anyway, I hear.  But here she is, grinning down at me, that expression of delight in her eyes, like a cat that's got a catnip mouse.  I'm pretty sure I'm not stuffed full of dried herbs, so this is unsettling to me.

She laughs when she sees me blink in confusion.

'Well, he'd never tell you, of course.  I don't think anyone would.  But Daddy likes you enough that he actually thinks twice about telling 'Sy that you've gone and done something stupid, just like your brothers.  You know how much he loves to bother your Father.  You have to have seen it.  You seem to make him pretty happy, too.  So...' She twirls her hair around her index finger, looking into the distance.  Then her eyes snap back to mine, catching me in a way that's eerily like Daddy.  'Don't ruin it.'  She watches me blink.  'Don't do something stupid and ruin it, Lyric.  All of you boys combined can scrape up the brainpower of a hedgehog, but at least you're wilier than you let on.  Sort of like Gerude.'  She gives me a little kick.  It doesn't hurt.  Well...not much.  I check my pants for scuff-marks, though, because these are brand-new.  'Get going.  I've got training ahead of me, and men to beat into the ground.'  She grins.  I take that shining opportunity to scamper away.

...You see how bad that makes this right now?

He keeps looking at me.  He can read my expression, I know.  Even though I'm keeping my pleasant smiling deadpan through it and acting the charming little arm-accessory.  He reads eyes.

I hear the Peacock King chuckle.  Uncle Lui's gaze snaps back to him.  His expression is well-schooled, so I can't tell if he's extremely wary of the ruler here or just trying not to show his shock at where his nephew is.

The Jhe o'Audiva Rocale is smiling at my uncle, his chin in his palm.  That grin is so smug and proud and predatory that I have to stamp out the instinctual urge to stand up and get between the two.  Really, if Uncle Lui needs protection, he has his royal guards behind him and Jhe Camden over his shoulder.  I realize that the chuckle is a well-disguised purr, and my Uncle...it almost looks like his hackles are rising.  Almost. "Isn't he the most beautiful thing?  I really have trouble taking my eyes off of him.  You as well, it seems."  And that ambiguous statement just stays ambiguous as his eyes skirt over the chessboard.  His fingers dance before falling upon a knight, which he hops over the first row of white men, and to the left.  Oh, goodness.  I could take this down in chess notation, you know, but I don't think it'd flow very well, and I don't know if everyone knows it.  Decisions decisions...

...Anyway, he makes his opening, and I suppose that's meant in several ways.  Then his attention skirts to me.  "J'Lotus, the tea, if you would please."

It gives me an excuse to stop watching the game, which is something I'm extremely grateful for.

"I do admit he is something particularly difficult to look away from."  I hear a soft click, which is Uncle Lui making his move.  "You must have schooled him well?"  That steel tone is something I don't really associate with my uncle.  It's hard to remember that it's being applied to me.  It's not just that they're talking about me as if I'm in a separate room - something that I am used to from attending so many Courts.  There's the person that the Peacock King is trying to pretend is me, and there's the kind of person that Uncle Lui thinks I am right now, and then there's me.  I can't resolve them.

"But of course, dear Regent.  Who isn't, that is placed in my hands?"  I hear the click on the chessboard of his matched reply.

My hands go to the teapot and I begin to pour out two cups.  I note that there are four cups set out, and then my attention gets prodded towards Jhe Camden, and myself.  Ah, of course.  I frown internally.  Giving tea to Jhe Camden is nice and all, but...isn't he serving as the Jhe o'Radia's principle bodyguard?

I can only do as told, though.

It strikes me that the Peacock King is veiling his insults one atop the other here - the Jhe o'Radia's preference for coffee as his favored drink is so well-known that it plays a defining role in the empire's import and export laws.  Having coffee on hand as well as tea would have been of negligible effort and expense to the Peacock King.

Rank determines serving, with guests taking priority in cases of equal rank.  I move in silent grace, offering the teacup on its saucer with a prim bow to my uncle.  He takes it with a nod to me that's obviously paid as a compliment and measure of gratitude.  Very proper of him.  If he weren't so professional about this all, I might have dropped the teacups by now.  As it is I almost serve myself next just so I can have some tea to console myself.  Being next to my Uncle is chilling, as if the air around him actually cools by several degrees until he responds to the Peacock King's question.  "In all fairness, it is not a question I can answer, due to lack of direct observation of your handling."

Ebrellin-i's eyes sparkle as he takes his cup and saucer from me, according me a slight tip of his chin before I back away.  "A lie," he intones softly, smiling over the rim of his cup.

My uncle's head actually jerks up.  Then, unexpectedly, he laughs.  It's a bit harsh, a bitter sort of mirth, but it's better than the anger I expected.  He plays his next move on the board with such cavalier abandon that I wonder if he's trying to lose on purpose.  "Of course you would tell me that, Ebrellin-i.  But, really.  Why don't we move conversation away from your current choice of accessory and onto more pressing matters?  My time is important."  That viciousness creeps into his eyes and tone, something so familiar to me and synonymous with Unkie that it consoles me.

I hand Jhe Camden his cup, and he gives me a curt nod, his eyes staring straight ahead.  He's looking directly at the Peacock King.  He probably hasn't looked away from the monarch since he glided in with me.  I'm not even sure if he knows I exist.  ...Except I am, because it's Jhe Camden, and I doubt a single thing in this garden has escaped his notice.

The Peacock King's smile is laced with poison, his head tilted down over his cup, his eyes closed.  He replies on the board before replying with his words, eyes still unopen.  His move is tactical and cutting, not at all like Uncle Lui's happy-go-lucky breach of all playing conventions.  "On to business.  Conversation that suits you so perfectly."  He makes a gesture, his fingers rolling, a sort of prompt to advance. "How has her education been?  Of course, she's past all of her training, so it is a bit of a moot question, but still one worth asking."  He looks up, cup dangling as he holds it with his fingers splayed around the rim.  "One never stops learning in one's life, or one dies."

Uncle Lui nods.  "Very well said.  She's learning the violin, you know.  Taking to it very well.  And of course she learns a new weapon every week, as surprised as I am to find out that there's still yet another weapon she hasn't mastered yet.  But then, we don't run out of weapons in this world."  His smile is rather cutting.

I blink.  Who are they talking about?  I look down and attend to my own tea.  The cup is long overdue for me.

Something about the Peacock King's chuckle in response betrays that he's nervous to address that.  I wonder why.  Of course, Jhe Camden's here, and commenting on weapons like that in the presence of an Armed...

...Maybe they're talking about an Armed, then?  It's so confusing.  I just can't tell.  I'm not here to understand, though.  I'm here to look pretty while two Kings play chess and talk about a girl as if she's some country they've fought over.  I notice they're even careful not to speak her name, and wonder who they're talking around - me, Jhe Camden, or the guards?  Or even each other?  That doesn't even make sense!

I do notice that everyone drains their tea rather quickly, except for Uncle Lui.  He's still nursing it.  Or rather, avoiding it.  But then, serving him tea was like a slap in the face by the Peacock King.

After I serve the Jhe o'Audiva Rocale and Jhe Camden, I remain standing, facing the Jhe o'Radia.  I wonder if I'm sweating my makeup away.  I almost stammer before I get the words out, but they flow as I speak, flawlessly delivered, and too swift and unexpected for Ebrellin-i to stop them.

"Jhe o'Radia, as an esteemed guest here, may I presume to offer you some coffee?"  I perform a very dainty bow, trying to ignore the surprised grunt from Ebrellin-i.  The monarch masks it with a light cough.

I see several things go through Uncle Lui's eyes.  Surprise, relief, and...a sort of searching of me.  He grins.  "It would be rude of me to decline an invitation from one so beautiful and charming as your consort, Jhe o'Audiva Rocale.  I hope this imposes no troubles on your behalf."

I straighten up.  "It's no trouble, sir!  I can fetch it myself, if needed."  I back away, and look to the Peacock King.

He has a marvelous deadpan.  He gestures for me to leave.  "If you would please bring the whole pot, J'Lotus."

I bow low, and then leave, letting none of my nerves show, my strides even, my hands still.  I don't want to think about whether he'll be angry at me, about how this might complicate things.  Maybe he'll just think I'm being polite.

Of course, Audiva Rocale's strict bans on most imports apply to coffee as well.  There's not a native Radian blend to be found, nor one from any other outside countries.  But Uncle Lui is a connoisseur, so I'm certain he'll enjoy one of these Aurocan blends.  I prepare the grounds in a coffee press and then bring it and some mugs out on a tray.

I can tell the Peacock King is angry, but at least he's aiming it at my uncle and not myself.  I can tell it through his chess, how he moves with more aggression than would be advisable.  Uncle Lui actually plays best under that kind of assault, and so answers each move by turning it to his advantage.  Serving him coffee only gives his confidence an eerie edge of cheer.

"Why thank you, Jhe Lotus.  Oh!"  He sniffs the brew.  "My commendations, Ebrellin-i.  This is a superior blend which I've had much trouble procuring."

The Peacock King accepts the compliment with due grace.  "All things flourish on Aurocan soil, whether they be flora or fauna.  Your words only serve to give that belief further credence.  So, perhaps I am due to receive a visit from my favorite flower, yes?"

Uncle Lui's face is like stone, when before it was actually happy.  "I am afraid I am the wrong official to address that concern to.  If it would help, I may pass on a scribed missive to the relevant parties.  At the very least, I can ensure more than anyone else that the message will go its course safely."

Ebrellin-i makes a dismissive gesture.  "If you can't give your word then my letter is just another letter, regardless of its courier.  Don't go through any special efforts for me.  I will make do...as I always do."  He makes his final move.  I blink.


Uncle Lui scrutinizes the board, then raises an eyebrow.  "You could have pushed for a win.  Are you playing weak on me?"

The Peacock King grunts.  "I'm playing the game you deserve to have played with you."

Uncle Lui's lip curls, but he says nothing further.

The Peacock King gestures for me to rise as he does.  I take my place by his side, just as he makes a gesture of farewell.  "I believe we have dispensed with all necessary business.  As always, it is a pleasure playing games with you."

Uncle Lui laughs, then stands, making a return gesture.  "As always.  Feel free to send me more regular correspondence.  The Poet King has requested the opposite, of course...but were you to send a messenger as attractive and charming as the boy at your side, perhaps he'd finally change his mind."  He chuckles.  "Really, I'd take him home with me, were he not yours."

I feel the Peacock King's hand tighten around my forearm.  "You've seen fit to take enough things from Aurocan soil.  Leave my flowers where I plant them and keep yours to your own garden.  That gleefully incapable son of yours saw fit to hop over my fences and trample among the rows.  He's knee-deep in the fertilizer, now, with a shovel, digging himself out."

"Ah, good, finally there is quality labor in the Aurocan fields.  I eagerly await his return after beautifying your Court with his shovel."  He's completely aloof about the reference to Jax, amazingly.  Almost proud of it, in fact.  Uncle Lui's eyes twinkle, and he cocks his head.  "You talk to your flowers, do you not, Ebrellin-i?  You can ask on your own what soil they long for.  If one gives an answer ill-suited to your purposes, would it anger you as a gardener, or would you relocate it to where it would flourish?  I have found that the second is painful, but only another part of being a parent, or a ruler.  You, of course, close your borders and see fit to fence in your greenery.  I don't see much sense in it, myself."  He nods to the other ruler.  "But, I must be off.  A fine evening to you and J'Lotus."

"Go."  There's nothing in the Peacock King's voice but cold steel, so much that I wonder if it would cut my uncle were he not on guard.

They leave.