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.

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