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.

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