20 - In the Garden of Hespiredes

Rachella's falcon bursts up into the sky in a flurry of feathers and talons. She looks up wistfully after it, then turns to follow our group as we march up the hill behind the King.

"She's a good bird." She sounds so sad about it. "I'll miss her."

I look askance at her, then see Camden looking back to give her a look of reproach. Rachella composes herself before the King notices. I keep walking ahead and don't call attention to it.

Marching up the hill is strange for us. It seems like we should be approaching a peaceful place, but Camden and Rachella are increasingly on edge. The surroundings are benign enough - lush green grass on the hillside, the occasional young oak tree, large rocks here and there. It's strange, though - I don't hear any birds calling out here. At this time of morning I expect that.

A quick look around gives me a possible reason why - there are no animals out here save for our horses, and Rachella's swiftly-departing bird. I wonder at that for a little bit before we reach the crest of the hill and look into the valley.

The Garden of Hespiredes.

I can feel the tension coming from Camden and Rachella. I'm not sure what to think, myself. There's some mild horror in me and I don't know why. Nothing looks wrong. Nothing seems out of place. But somehow...everything does.

Camden's eyebrows shoot up, then, Rachella jumps with a squeak, and then I feel something big and feathery brush over my neck and back, snuffling at my cheek and ear, and then just as quickly withdrawing in a puff of cloves and smoke. I share a blink with the others, though Camden's shows no surprise. The King looks back at us as we take it in.

"As I said, the Dragon is a friendly fellow. I do hope you greet him back." Before the prompt, Camden was already making a complex bow, hitting the ground with his knee. Rachella echoes it with her own motions, and I try to follow suit. I've been in the Courts of Kings before, as I have said. And I've learned how to show respect, and can do so quite well when I choose to, and when I'm concerned enough for my neck. Thankfully, the Dragon accepts our gestures. I can feel his presence back away from us, but still watch us. It's a relief when he withdraws a bit - Dragons are so big that even feeling the regard of one, being brushed up against by one's mind, makes me feel very, very small. While seeing one in the flesh would be a singular experience, I'm not exactly on pins and needles waiting for this one to show up, physical form and all.

I see Camden's shoulders lower just a tad, and Rachella's hair stops standing on end. The Peacock King, meanwhile, just watches us, smiles, and doesn't manage to stifle his giggle completely. After the King turns away, Camden rolls his eyes.  I expect the King to notice in some way, but if he does, he doesn't show it. He only continues standing with his shoulders straight, tall and smug, with an energy to him that I've not quite seen in him before. I'm trying to place where it's coming from, but so far, no inspiration. We walk into the valley.

I hear Rachella make the first reaction, a soft gasp that she obviously tried to stifle. I see the King nod just a little. "It'll be like this in the whole Valley. Aren't you glad you kept your bird far away, young falconer?" His voice seems oddly far-off, as if he's not entirely here. But then, maybe he isn't. I can still feel the dragon's gaze on us all. Maybe the King is talking with him.

Or maybe he's thinking about the past.

It's hard to describe what it felt like, walking into there. Not stifling...calm. Tame. Relaxing, befitting the garden that the King has made it into. Somehow the feel here is reminiscent of the Peacock King, perhaps because he is a tamer. But if feels more like the land and the Peacock King are kin. If, perhaps if land could breathe, they inhale and exhale with the same rhythm and beat.

This is all to preface what Rachella was reacting to - an average-sized brown rabbit. Upon seeing us, it hops towards the group, and then looks up at us for attention. Like a very somber and polite puppy. There's no fear in it, no hesitation just because we are humans. It doesn't accord this designation with the status of 'dangerous predator'. It is, in short, the most foolish animal I have ever seen.

Then the stag comes prancing slowly through the trees, its antlers an impressive spread. The mockingbirds follow, one alighting on each side of the rack. They look at us quizzically. I feel myself visually inspected for any pockets or bags that might in any way contain birdseed. The look-over ceases when the Peacock King draws a feedbag from underneath one of his sashes, and hands it to me.

"Share," he says, then proceeds to walk. I hand some to Rachella, who is still stunned and accepts it without much comprehension. Camden declines, his jaw clenched but his face not telling any other tales. His eyes never leave the King.

Have you ever fed a deer from your palm? It's not as enchanting as one would assume. They've got slimy lips. "Watch for the teeth," is the King's suggestion that I'd rather not have heard. I'm too busy not getting my eye impaled by a prong to really mind the suggestion. Rachella of course has more luck with the birds.

"You're drawing a crowd," is the King's soft observation. I can't read much out of his voice beyond very distant, idle amusement. I look up to see a duck, two badgers, five more songbirds of varying coloration, two snakes [Camden narrows his eyes], and one very large cougar. I did not wet myself.

Surprisingly, it is Rachella that creeps up to scratch the cat under the chin, while all four of us look on in utter amazement. It rubs against her fingers as a rumbling purr rises up from its throat. I don't start breathing again until it flops down and rolls over to expose its belly. Out of the corner of my eye I see Camden's shoulders slump in relief.

There's a silence over our group until the King finally says, "Why don't we move on?"

The rest of the valley lays before us, green and luxurious. The bushes and trees are trimmed back, flower beds here and there. A fountain bubbling up in the center of the land is encircled by a bench. He leads us toward that, then sits.

"Hesperides will not come out to meet strangers." The King says this while looking directly at Camden. The Armed nods and makes a gesture of understanding.

"Nor did I expect her to. We are honored that you showed us this Valley at all, Sire. Certainly I did not expect such an invitation. If it is your desire that we leave now, then we shall." The half-bow that follows is more intricate than I expected, and is cut off when Camden looks up. His eyes widen.

Rachella and I follow his gaze and behold the largest beast this world could ever support. The King makes the gesture prompting us to close our gaping mouths as subtlely as he can, which is not very. I can't help it. I can't speak for Rachella but this is the first time I have ever looked upon a Dragon in his full scaly glory. What's scary, at least one of the things that are scary, is that from the slope of the land I can only see his head from here. My eyes are arguing with my brain, telling me there's no possible way such a large thing could exist. Its snout alone is bigger than any tree in this valley.

"He is maintaining that distance so as not to frighten you," murmurs the Peacock King. "Perhaps it is best to give your proper respects in gratitude." Three graceful bows answer the request. For some reason the valley feels very smug in response to our gestures.

The dragon's gaze fixes on Camden. "The most Honorable Briarseal, I believe? It is my pleasure to have you walk my lands. Thank you for gracing this fine Valley and its adjoining lands with the Justice and Law that they so deserve. You are welcome here anytime." I'm not sure how dragon lips make human sounds. There are many teeth involved, though. Very many sharp pointy teeth.

Camden takes a knee and removes his hat, holding it over his chest. "I accept the invitation graciously and wholeheartedly." His voice sounds like it's reciting poetry. Not flowery or ornate, just very clear and sincere.

The dragon gives a nod that could level a house. His gaze flicks over to me. I grow rigid. He smiles a little. I swear it's full of mischief. I hear the Peacock King make a quiet little sigh that is layered and layered with weariness. The dragon's eyes flick over to Rachella, who bows again. The dragon cocks his head, makes what sounds like a cluck. Then it draws back, and its head is no longer visible.

The Peacock King draws himself up, sitting straight on the bench. "He often nests in that hollow there, if you'd like to see the full physical body of a living Dragon." His eyebrow lifts, and I see it's meant as a challenge. Camden looks at him.

The Armed shakes his head. "We'll not intrude. I've seen my Dragons in my lifetime. Rachella and Lotus can have theirs later, I'm sure." Both of us nod in relieved agreement.

The Peacock King shakes his head with a sad smile. "If you insist. Sheriff Briarseal, I wish you a good day. If you'd like to depart my garden, you may."

Camden makes a bow which Rachella echoes on cue. "If you have any need of our assistance, we shall be nearby."

The King watches the two of them leave. I stay. I can tell that he wants me to. It's several minutes after we no longer see the two Armed before the Peacock King speaks again.

"...Lotus? Come." He turns and walks towards the place we saw the Dragon appear from. I follow, though my feet drag.

"...I...you don't really have to show me-" A gesture of his hand cuts me off.

"I'm not here to show you the Dragon, my dear Lotus." It's more a command than the order to follow was. I trail behind him without further objections.

We reach the slight hill over which the Dragon peeked at us. The land slopes down dramatically from here, widening into a huge expanse before sloping up again into more mountainous territory. It's a tricky place, this valley. What we had seen before was only the beginning of it. What I look down at now is likely the true Valley.

"The Good Sheriff need only see what he is willing to, and what I wish to show him. Everyone's best interests are kept that way, don't you think?" I don't answer him. I know the trickery he's been involved in. But I understand it. At the center of the Valley, I see a small woman curled up, lounging in the coil of the Dragon's tailtip. The tail stretches far out until it reaches into the forest bordering the Valley to the right. From there the trees are so tall that I have no idea of what his size might be. Nor do I want to. There's a certain scale of size that my mind just pees its own pants at.

The Peacock King descends into the Valley, and I follow in his footsteps.

* * *

"Be very quiet, in both your speech and movements. Don't say anything until I signal that you may." The King's voice is low but clear as we approach the center of the Valley. "And don't touch his tail. He's testy about that sort of thing." The last part I needed no hints on. I see Hesperides lift her head up from a clump of feathers on one of the ridges of the tail. She blinks lazily, her face completely blank at first.

Then she sees the King approach, and a smile alights on her face that seems too tender for any animism to express. He walks up to her, hand extended in plain sight, and strokes her cheek. She leans into the motion, her short sandy hair shifting with the tilt. Her eyes roll over to me in the middle of the motion, fixed. Almost afraid.

"He's a friend. He won't touch you," the King whispers. I see her body untense at the words, which are all that she needs to drop her guard completely from me. In fact, her attention seems to completely leave me. All that exists in her world is the King. She pulls him down against the tail that she uses as a couch and then curls around him possessively. In return the King strokes her back as if she were a cat. He looks over her bare shoulder at me and nods, motioning that I should have a seat. I do so on the bare dirt here, where the Dragon's tail has worn away any plant growth. As I do so, the King turns his attentions back to his pet animism.

Hesperides reminds me of Faun, but only faintly. She should moreso. Her appearance is very similar to his, hair longer but in a similar style and color. Her skin tone and eye color are the same as well, facial features only slightly more feminine than his. Her build is that same slight, spry build. But the tautness isn't in her muscles, and the alertness of an animal isn't in her frame. I hadn't realized that so much of Faun's identity is defined by wildness.

If it weren't for the slight points of her ears and a few other things about her appearance, such as her simple, worn leather clothing, I wouldn't even think she was an animism at all. In fact, if I hadn't met Faun, I'd doubt despite those small details. But I wouldn't think of her as human, either. She's more like the dryads and nymphs that the Peacock King keeps in his palace. Too happy to serve to be just a collared, pet-named slave.

If I saw Faun like this, I'd cry. It hurts to even think about it happening. I look at her like this and I don't understand how the Peacock King could keep Faun caged as he does, and plan to tame him. Why break an animism like this? He already can see the result. And I know the result does not make him happy. I can see it in his face, right now. Relieved to be with her and hold her, protect her - but sad that he has to. His eyes flick up to me, and I realize I've been caught staring.

I look away.

The Peacock King shifts against the tail, then slides to the ground, guiding Hespiredes to kneel beside him. She leans against his shoulder after doing so. She still doesn't bother looking at me. From here, I can see the other difference that marks her as unlike Faun. A swirling mark reaches from her jawline to her cheek on the left side of her face. It's so light, almost irridescent. I didn't notice it until I was close to her. The Peacock King watches my inspection. Hespiredes does too, to my surprise. She truly notices me for what feels like the first time.

She reaches a hand out, touches her fingers to my left cheek, and brushes it just barely before withdrawing her hand, wrist curling away shyly. She buries her face into the Peacock King's neck and nests against him without a word. He takes to comforting her again.

"Shh. Good girl. You've been so calm and so well-behaved, dear. No one will hurt you here. I'll keep you safe forever." It goes on like that, him whispering into her hair until she relaxes so much that I realize she's napping. I look up to the King.

He's looking at her, entranced, a little smile on his face so simple and charmed that I wonder if I'm being fooled again, watching another act. This is more than showing humanity. It's showing a type of weakness I'd never credit to him. A type of weakness I've exhibited myself too many times for someone as young as I am.

I wonder if he even knows.

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