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.

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