34 - The Dance Begins

Oh gods Daddy's here.

I can feel it in the very air of this place, feel his presence hanging over my head like an axe...wherever in the Palace he is.

No matter if the nymphs tell you any different, I did not pee in the bathtub just now.  I do haul out of it immediately and dry off.  I dress in record time.  I take about five minutes to do my hair, cutting the regular preparation time drastically short.  I need to look ready.  Sharp.  I need to be alert.

I need to run away.

One problem.  The door out of my room is locked.  I peer down under it.

...Okay, two problems.  The Peacock King has a guard posted in front of my door.  Why would he do that?

What's going on?

* * *
Recorded from an excerpt of Gerude Akribastes's Travel Log
* * *

I find it very convenient that we already have our Arms drawn when all the shit goes down.  Camden and I can sense it, and while the Peek is good at schooling his expression, we know he feels it too.  I can't tell exactly what's going on.  Hell, we just pretend we're having a regular match.  The Peek might have been trying to keep Camden busy while his plans were in motion elsewhere, but now we're keeping him here while everything falls apart out there.  I know Jenny's racking up carnage, and there's the hint of someone even more vicious than her carving people up, and I'm willing to bet it's on our side.

Then, well, the Judge comes, and nobody can pretend not to notice that.  The King calls for us to halt, saying that he must go to the greeting chambers immediately, and we must accompany him.

Well, thank you very much for the orders, Sire!  Still, we do need to accompany him.  If we don't, Jenny'll probably run across him on the way and murder him in the face.

* * *
Recorded from an excerpt of Jhe 'hAkribastes's Travel Log
* * *

I arrive in Audiva Rocale with no fanfare.  I, in fact, wait patiently in the Jhe o'Audiva Rocale's audience chamber while the King is summoned.  Well, perhaps summoned isn't the proper word, but he had better get here...now.

I don't often hear stories about my wandering son, and the one that the Jhe o'Radia told to me upon his homecoming was...alarming enough to summon my presence.

I can tell upon my entry into the Palace that he probably eliminated a few details in his story.  Not very surprising, even after I grilled him on it.  He's well-known for hiding things from, well, anyone.  It's his way.  He just wanted to protect his nephew, I am sure.  And it will be all right.  I won't kill Lyric.

He might wish he were dead, but that's sort of a trend among my children once they get naughty.

I hear the King of this land's approach.  I also hear...

My head turns very swiftly.  That's not practice combat, it is in the wrong place, and...Jennelcia Akribastes just what are you doing carving up the Peacock King's guards?!

I hear a startled chirp of Sorry Daddy, but they were getting in the way!  Hey, are you here to help us kick ass or what?

This...is not the welcome I was expecting from my daughter, though upon a moment's contemplation it should have been.  This makes no sense.  Camden's reports have mentioned nothing to make me expect this.  And where is my son?  The littler one.  Gerald is no doubt taking care of himself.  Or in jail, which equates to the same thing most times.

Ebrellin-i approaches the dais, his hair almost standing on end - which is about the only thing that could make him taller than he already is, by this point.  Before he can even open his mouth to speak to me, the entryway to the side - which has wards scarred with my daughter's touch - explodes in an avalanche of bodies.  Most of them are guards.  One of them is my daughter, and I see her protoge Jhe Hawksgard with her as well.  And there's something I almost don't see because it's heading so fast towards the Peacock King that I have to leap forward to catch it, because the last thing I need today is a dead monarch on my hands.

It hisses at me, and I get a handful of blue cloak.  Servant clothing?  Wait, how could I miss?  I don't miss

Camden can't stop him either, and neither can Gerude, and neither do the monarch's frantic commands and gestures.  Ebrellin-i is on the floor and I am planning out how to explain how an assassination happened right in front of my eyes before I notice just who that King is pinned under.

...I can't stop an animism from pursuing its own justice, not when it is Just, and apparently this is.  What surprises all of us is that Ebrellin-i isn't dead in an instant.  The animism drags him away and pins him up against the wall, razor-sharp teeth bared against his throat.  While he does so, he manages to articulately growl out a request.  "I cry for the Law against this Man, Jhe Tesynnodai a'Radia 'hAkribastes l'Radia.  He robbed me of my freedom and bore will to tame me.  He committed acts to accomplish just that much."

He speaks truly.  Ebrellin-i has the temerity to respond while those teeth are locked against his throat.

"I cry false!  Jhe Lotus a'Radia committed those actions, not I."

I stare at him.  The words had the barest gleam of truth, but were mere gilded lies.  Knowing Lyric's 'stage name' here from his Uncle, I do wonder just how even that touch of gilding is possible.  "Good that you mention him.  Please summon him, and perhaps this can all be sorted out."  I feel twin spikes of alarm from my trainee and journeywoman.  "After all, we must address why Arms had to be drawn in your Palace today."

He can't even choke out a word.  No surprise, the animism is about to eviscerate the ruler by the look of things.  "...Jhe Faun.  Please unhand the Jhe o'Audiva Rocale.  Justice will be had whether or not your grip is on him."  I'm a little surprised that it works.  The animism draws away from the Peacock King, and then darts behind me to vanish.  I blink.  It's like having a cat on the loose.

The Jhe o'Audiva Rocale rubs his throat as he stands, summoning bodyguards to immediately surround him, as if they'd be any help.  "I cannot believe the audacity of--I'll have you know--how dare you all enter my chambers and make such a FUSS--" he's so angry that he just sputters.

"Summon my son."

His eyes widen as he stares at me.  It's as if he's looking at the death of himself.  I can't ever deny that prospect, but I'd prefer I had Lyric here first.  I don't really see what the problem is, at that.  ...Ah.  That's right.  He doesn't know.

"I will forgive the indiscretion if he is returned promptly and nothing is ever said of it again."  I grant few pardons, but take easy comfort in the fact that I can punish him for any number of other indiscretions with my son that we're not going into yet.  I just want him here.  Now.  The Peacock King seems to be confused by this.  Very, very confused.  ...No.

No, he's worried.  He's hiding something.  I look at Camden and then I get the whisper and then I know--

"Peacemaker Camden, if you would please search the premises for both of my sons and return them here promptly.  You have no orders to withold force...within reason."  I say it level.  Even.  Like the length of my Trident.  Diyn's prongs are in the wall, one on each side of Ebrellin-i's neck.  The regent is white as a sheet.  Even under the paint.  I can see his neck, after all.  It's so easily cut, in this position.  The bodyguards have fallen to either side of the dais, near to or fully unconscious from the mere shockwave of Diyn moving so fast.  "You have caused enough of a mess in your Kingdom.  It will be sorted out while you are under arrest."

He dares spit, though not in my face.  Such rage on his, now, those black marks twisting into ugly contortions as he grimaces.  "What cause could you possibly have to arrest me, and under what power do you hope to enforce that?  Get.  Away from me.  Get out of my Palace."  They're leveled as commands, the intent and will in every word.

I don't budge.  "I am the Law."  There are no other words.  He can't even choke out another command.

There's the problem of the entire rest of the Palace, and servants that might have a problem with my actions, and...whatnot.

I brought reinforcements with me just in case the King liked his consort too much to part with willingly.  They come in handy.

I expect that the search for Gerald might take a bit longer.  What I don't expect, but nevertheless does not surprise me, is to feel Bruce and Wagner fire.

One of my sons is finding his own way here, it seems.

* * *
Recorded from an excerpt of Gerald Akribastes's Resumed Mission Log
* * *

Bruce and Wagner and I feel his arrival all at the same time, even with this collar pinning down my abilities.  I've been able to stretch it, though, with the King's little slips and ill-given permissions.  My doodles may be the terror of the Poet Art Classes but as psychic crowbars they have their own functionality.

'Ach, quit tootin' yer own horn.'

Well, fine, so the Judge is finally here.  What can I do about it?  Wait for help to arrive?  That thought's a little scary - I'm being kept in a pretty secretive part of these premises.  I'll have to get their attention somehow--

Bruce and Wagner roar simultaneously, first at the equipment that attempts to bind them, blowing it all to flaming, smoking smithereens.  I grin.  That'll get some attention!  The boys fire again.  I scrunch my eyebrows.  What are they firing at?  It's just ricocheting around!  ...Oh shi-

The lock on my cell becomes a smoking hole of blackened steel.  I dart to the back of the cell.  They both fired, and I know better than to think that one of those bullets wasn't aimed at me.  Arms are so damned charming, aren't they?  I'm right, it seems - the second shot whistles through the air.  It's dead-on, right for my throat.  I don't even duck - last time they fired at me, the bullet turned mid-air.  Yeah, it was pretty ridiculous.  The bullet impacts.

Right into my collar, shattering the jewel in the center of it and fracturing the strange metal it's been crafted from.  The thing hinges open in the middle and falls right off.

I throw my arms right into the air and whoop - just in time to jump, my feet stepping up and down in rapid motion.  Damn things always do this to me.

'Dance, you scoundrel, dance!'
'Aye, pay us back for all this damned hassle!'

After a few minutes of dancing, they tire of the game and wait patiently for me to collect them.

'Hurry it up!  We're gonna miss the fightin'!'
'Lazy git!'

That's pretty patient for Bruce and Wagner, all told.

Of course, getting through the labs safely is a different story.  My Arms have been kind enough to free me from my immediate captivity, but Ebrellin-i's labs are a death trap in their own right.  I've been pretty sure he's only kept me here to monitor just how I deal with such obstacles.  So curious about the Armed, as if they're just more prospective specimens for him.  Well, I'll show him just how dangerous a 'lab rat' can be.  And, speaking of lab rats, I almost just lost a foot there.  'Boys!  Can't you be useful instead of just lying there?'

'Are ye askin' me to put ye out of yer misery?'
'It'd be a pleasure!'

I let out a deep, weary sigh and finally get to where they've been kept.  The smoking remains of the machinery surrounding them don't tell me much about what sort of monitoring was being put to them, but I've no real worries.  Whatever the Peacock King wanted to do to my Arms, he wouldn't be able to manage with mere machines.  I grip a revolver in each hand, do the flippy thing, and holster them.

"Missed you two surly guys."

'Aye, I do admit, it's been lonely here.  No dunces to watch.'
'I missed yer pitiful harmonica skills. I tried to imagine cats drowning but it just didn't do it fer me.'

After that it's just a matter of clearing a path of destruction through the King's labs and towards Justice.  It's a joyful dance.  I've missed this.


33 - Girls Gone Wild!

* * *
Recorded from an excerpt of Apprentice Armed Rachella Hawksgard's Travel Log
* * *

I know something is wrong at dawn, and I don't even have to ask Jenny if she feels the same.  I can feel it coming off of her, and even if that isn't enough, the tension in her poise and the fire in her eyes are dead giveaways.  Something is afoot this morning.  We're going to see action soon.

The blood thunders in my ears for a few moments from the rush of it.  I'm just a trainee, after all.  Jenny's earned her Arms, though she's not allowed to carry them publicly yet.  If it comes down to us drawing...

No, I'll find some way of fighting.  I've been trained.  I can handle this.

She leads us out to the yard outside the Mews.  We've been watched for awhile here.  It puts Jenny on edge.  Me...well, I think I know why we're being watched.

I just haven't told anybody about it yet.  I don't know what to do about it.  I wish I could ask my Arms like Jenny and Camden can, but I don't understand that part yet.  I just can't hear.  All I can do is think back on it.

* * *

The fog hadn't burnt off of the morning yet when Tamborin' flew in from the periwinkle sky.  I was overjoyed to see her, practically grinning my face off in joy.  I received her with my gauntlet, bracing myself against the impact.  She's not a big raptor, but she comes in very fast when she lands!  I gave her a treat, told her she was a good girl, then hooded her before she could nip my nose off.

(The stories never do mention those parts, do they?  Falconry sounds so romantic until the little darling goes for your heirloom jasper teardrops and tears your eardrums to ribbons.)

She had a capsule tied around her ankle with a thong.  I made a little clucking sound before touching Tamborin's foot (she can be really high-strung in the morning!) and then I take out the note and unroll it.  I scan over it, but it's written in the code that Camden knows so much better than Jenny and I do yet.

Four feet in front of me, someone cleared their throat.  I almost jumped another four feet.  He chuckled, then shushed me.

"Now now, Jhe Rachella - do you really think I present any harm to you?"

"...Jhe o'Audiva Rocale.  It is truly an honor."  I'd have curtsied, but...he'd chosen rather a bad position for me to do so.

"Please, don't bother with the formality of a bow.  I can see plainly that you're unable to.  Besides, this meeting is rather...unofficial."


He sauntered closer.  That was the nearest I've ever been to him.  Gods, he was tall.  "Jhe Rachella...Dovetail, was it?  Yes, I can see your mother's blood in you."  He grinned.  "But not nearly as much as your father's.  Pray, why don't you claim the name of Hawksgard?  It carries such prestige, especially for one in your profession."  His face twisted into a sly grin.  "You're no baggage carrier, are you?"

"I...I'm sorry, sire, but I don't--"

"Don't dissemble it.  I may waive the bow, but I do insist on truth in my Court.  The good Peacekeeper Briarseal has been hiding you from me under a false name and a false occupation.  I do wonder...does he really believe that I would lure you to my Court?"  The King's grin grew smug.  "...He would be correct."

"I'm not sure what to say, sire."

He shook his head.  "Don't bother thinking on those things.  Instead...deliberate on just what you would like your pay to be, were you to find Audiva Rocale a suitable place to dwell.  I...have many things to offer one such as you, Jhe Rachella, whom I expect well knows the elegance and grandeur that only the well-bred can appreciate."

I could only stammer out a measure of my gratitude for the offer and then begged off a moment alone to deliberate on it.

"Take your time.  You may even discuss it with Peacekeeper Briarseal.  I'm quite certain that I can offer you more than your Arms training can give you."  He made his leave after giving me his own bow.  "A lovely day to you, Jhe Hawksgard."

...He'd figured out that I was training for Arms too, then.  That made three secrets lost in one morning.  My identity, my affiliation, and the fact that we'd been using Tamborin' as a message carrier.

In the end, I told Jhe Camden about the messages being discovered.  He took it well.  He told me they were just a ruse anyway.  With some reluctance, I also admitted that the King had figured out I was an Armed trainee, and a Hawksgard.  Jhe Camden expected that first part, but admitted he was hoping my identity would remain a secret.  "But, as I instructed you to carry your falcon in the open, it's nothing that is your fault.  You behaved well and did as you should.  Simply act accordingly around him and see if he'll talk to you more often now that he knows of your bloodline.  ...And keep yourself very near Jhe Jenny at all times."

With all that, I just couldn't tell him about being an offered a job here.  It's embarrassing.  Especially the snooty way the King spoke about the pleasures of the 'well-bred'.  I hated being an aristocrat!  I don't hate my family, but it doesn't make me better than anybody else.  I fancy the birds much more than I fancy my birthright.  Jhe 'hAkribastes said that none of that would matter when I trained under him.

It's not worth telling anyone, really.  I'm not taking the job, so it won't matter.

* * *

"Shhh," Jenny says, patting my shoulder.  "You're about as puffed up as a wildcat.  Here.  Let's rid ourselves of the morning energy."

We've been allowed to set up a rudimentary archery shot here.  Just a board nailed up on a sawhorse.  Enough to keep us from destroying the rest of the buildings around here from pent-up energy.  I swear, what does the King think being an Armed trainee means?  Of course I'm going to need to fight!  The archery practice we get in is just enough to whet my appetite, but it's been getting very bad, especially since my period is coming up--

--dratted ink doesn't erase!  How embarrassing!

I'm still stringing my practice crossbow when I feel them behind me.  Jenny's eyes narrow.  I think neither of us expected them to do something as foolish as grab me, then, but my arms are hauled behind me all the same.  I'm more shocked at their audacity than anything else.

Jenny's bow wasn't strung yet when that happened.  So when another of the big men from behind me shouts, "We've already got the only one that's Armed!  Grab the other one, the King wants her too!"

Two pertinent points - one, it was very convenient for him to lay all of that out for us.  Very expansive dialog.  The Jhe o'Sul sure can pick them!  Two, Jenny put an arrow in his throat shortly before that exclamation mark would have occurred, so it's more my revision than an actual quote.

...Oh, and three, Jenny can string a bow very fast!

The man holding my arms soon finds himself on the ground, and does not expect me to fall on him with my elbow lodged squarely below where his collarbones meet.  Surprises can happen at any time, sir!

It's over before it really begins, but that doesn't mark it as anywhere near the end of our troubles.  Jenny managed to pick off a few of the King's men, and we'd both managed no incapacitate a few, but then there's the staff in the Mews, and in the nearby Palace grounds, and whoever's expecting these brutes to return with two 'helpless' girls.

"I want to know just who told them I wasn't Armed," Jenny growls, the air around her crackling with potential ignition.  I keep my distance.  "Camden's Arms warned us right before that attack.  She's told him the whole of it by now.  We should report back, but the Palace will be hostile.  He would say we shouldn't cause a scene."


"I say he can punish me for it later.  Come on.  Let's haul."  She heads for the closest wing of the Palace - the shortest way to get to the practice arena the King's given us for our stay.  I sigh and follow close behind, already scouting to each side for any points I'll have to cover Jenny against.

I suppose that wraps up the end of our stay there, from my perspective at least.

* * *
Recorded from an excerpt of Journeywoman Jennelcia Akribastes's Travel Log
* * *

I'm elbowing through bodies, sometimes punching when elbows don't do the job and boots take too much clearance time.  I don't slow down for any of these bastards.  They watch silently while that asshole commits crimes from up on high on his throne, and would have watched his crime against us just as silently, and I will not bother being nice, anymore.  Mom can tell me all she wants about manners.  She can tell it to my younger siblings if she wants someone to listen.  I have stuff to do now.

I stomp through the chambers directly adjacent to where we were.  Rachella follows if she knows what's good for her.  She seems to.  I guess she's got a head on her shoulders after all.  I note while we dash forward that this is near the entrance and audience chambers of the Palace.  Shallow levels.  Hard to get to the back places from here, since they're on another end.  I can't think of a direct way to get where we need to go...

...But Dyennah can aim for Cam from just about anywhere, and we both together can sniff out a possible way.  Off to the side, here.  Ah, Lyric's described this part.  Didn't he take this way to get to the King's little private zoo?

"Faun is kept this way."  Rachella confirms my suspicions from over my shoulder.  I nod, then squint at the entrance.  "But...there's a lot of wards here...Gerald only got through by mind-riding your brother."

I snort.  "Gerald's subtleties never really impressed me, especially when he winds up behind bars because of them.  I know how to get into this place."

Rachella gulps, and quickly takes cover.  Smart girl.  Astoundingly swift learner.  I'm beginning to like her.  

The doorway explodes into a crackle of energy as I launch an arrow through that.  "You can weave a wardbreak in with that, Rachella.  I hope you're taking notes whenever you decide to write this down in your log."  She gives a curt nod.  I take an arrow in my hand and sweep the edges of the doorway, ensuring that I haven't missed anything.  I do catch a few snags at the corners which are dispelled quickly.  "Come on.  They'll rebuild in a few seconds.  Once we're in it's all just monitoring-type wards, which I don't give a fuck about anymore."  She rushes in behind me, running almost on my heels past all the cages.  I hear her let out a few whimpers as she catches some glances at the contents.  I make my own notes of just what the Peacock King is keeping in here.  Faun isn't his only illegal stash - but he's probably the most illegal here.  Hells, that's even worse than him pinning up Gerald or collaring Lyric.

My bile builds up at that.  I only knew Lyric a little when I was a child, but I liked him and that bastard shouldn't have touched any of my kin, ever.

We stop at Faun's cage.  Rachella's already looking over the wards as I stare in at the King's captive.  He returns my stare with a level gaze.

"Jhe Akribastes.  It is quite the delayed honor.  Dare I assume this means I may be returned to the wild?  You can't open this cage without his approval, you kn--"  His eyes widen as I aim at the lock.  Rachella gasps.

"Yes, I know, Rachella.  The shrapnel.  But I can aim, you know."  Even the animism looks afraid.  Fuck him, I know what I'm doing.  A poof of dust later, the lock isn't there anymore, and the door swings inwards.  Rachella stares.  "Minimizing impact.  It's one of the first things I was taught."  Well, as an urgent preventative measure, but neither of them need to know that.

Rachella enters while I stand guard at the door.  No pursuers?  No, I hear footsteps echoing down the hallway.  As expected.  I ready my bow.  "Can you get him out?"

"If she removes this collar, I can get myself out."  Faun's voice is smooth, even, levelheaded.  Trust the feral one to be the calmest, huh?

I don't know how Rachella gets the thing off of him, but I hear her mumbling some spellwork and Poetry, and then there's a flash.  Faun lets out a cry of triumph, more a yowl than anything else.  The first attackers come in just as his chains crumble into sparks and dust.  Of course.  Without the Jherent o'Sul's witchcraft, no mortal-forged chains could hold that animism.  It can only be bound by the gods, and while the Jherent o'Sul's Emperor status might make him a bit of a deity himself, once that bind's off of him, nothing else matters.

I have a little bit of trouble fighting, then, because Faun's in the way, taking out every attacker we have by their throat.  I hate cleaning up other people' messes.  I turn and sure enough, here come some more goons from the other side.  Great!

I must admit, it is almost difficult to slaughter people while Faun's doing his work, because damn.  If you ever get the chance to see a pissed-off animism fight, and you're not the one he's fighting, it is worth the price of admission.  Not that I'm advocating that sort of thing, mind, it's just an observation.  Jeez, I can feel my Dad looking funny at me just for writing that...

Rachella looks up, just as Faun pauses mid-gutting.  The hair bristles up on the back of my neck.  I know what that feeling is.

He's here.  He has long ears, after all.

The Judge has arrived in Audiva Rocale.


32 - Pertinent Document Section II

* * *
Recorded from an excerpt of Peacekeeper Camden Briarseal's Travel Log
* * *

I've been very honored today - the Peacock King graced us with his presence this morning.  Words cannot describe my gratitude for this wonderful and unparalleled occasion.

Instead of addressing us in his Court, he took the matter to me directly, meeting me outside in a field we've been allowed to use as a sparring practice 'arena'.  As he'd hate to show off our strength too openly to his citizens, the field is isolated and walled in, located near an older, less-used section of the palace.  Of course, he insists it's for our privacy and for the safety of others, implying that we might actually miss what we were aiming for and cause collateral damage...

...Well, I'll give him that, Jhe Jenny is a part of our group.  But he doesn't know what that means, so it's no excuse.

He came in the early hours of the morning.  The mist had yet to burn off and the light was still gray, the grass wet with dew.  I had come out to the place to collect my thoughts after my morning coffee.  The girls were already in the Mews, and would join me later in the morning.  As sequestered as the yard was, it was at least a quiet place for introspection.

I heard the signs of his approach long before he stepped out, Geillg'a whispering to me of how the sound of his robes shuffling had pricked her ears.  I allow him to reach five paces behind me before turning to face him.  He takes my sensing him gracefully.  I allowed him to get that far so that he would take it gracefully.  There've been days where a person would have had his face hacked off for approaching that close to me without any warning.  I note to myself that I'd really just like to initiate a proper war instead of taking a vacation - it would be a much more welcome respite from all of this mincing about and dancing.

I bow to the Jhe o'Sul, and he nods back to me.  "Peacekeeper Briarseal.  Such a pleasant beginning to your day, is it not?  Does the sun shine brighter in Radia, or do you find the Aurocan clime suits one from the lands of the Hills such as yourself?"

I smile.  "I must admit, Sul has treated me quite pleasantly.  Ah, my pardon.  Audiva Rocale.  Radia's manners of speaking stick long to my tongue."  I give him a short little smile, noting how long it takes for his hackles to calm back down.  That little Radian nickname for this Kingdom never has gone over well with the natives here, and of course I would never knowingly let it slip past my lips if I was worried about upsetting someone.

He nods.  "Forgiven.  Tell me, Jhe Briarseal - is it normal to call so many Armed into a peaceable Kingdom such as mine?  Between your fighters and my armies, we seem to be well fortified.  Is there something you anticipate to happen soon?"

"Your Majesty, I understand your concerns.  The high concentration is not for an operation we planned out - things simply happened this way.  Do our numbers concern you?  I must admit, I did not expect to stay so long in your locale - I had not foreseen how valuable staying here would be to my trainees.  Oh...Jhe Akribastes's appearance didn't upset you, did it?"

He schools his expression well in response, and I have trouble holding myself back instead of penetrating his poker face.  There's the route of mindplay, which he would find me more well-versed in than he expects, and then there's the route of my fist cordially greeting his long Xaillyndesse nose.  I'm not sure which I would prefer more, but neither are an option at this stage of the game.

"It was a surprise to see the Judge's son arrive in my Court, I must admit.  But...it's old news, yes?  I am sure he is faring well in my wonderful country.  To more prominent business...I do say, Jhe Briarseal.  It's very awkward, watching you play these games in the open, and myself being unable to call you on them.  I trust you're through switching around which of the people you've brought into my Kingdom are Armed, and which are your clever ploys?  I grow bored of the shuffle back and forth, and I'm sure your pieces do as well."

I blink.  I don't want to show confusion, but what on land or sea is he nattering on about?  Perhaps there's a game being played that I am not aware of at this time?  "I do what I must, Jhe o'Audiva Rocale.  It is my hope that soon our business here will be cleared up, and we will leave your empire in peace."

"Ah.  Good."  He looks away for a moment, and does the high-and-mighty-ruler version of shuffling his feet, which is more of a cuff-tugging and robe-settling gesture.  "Well then.  I trust there are no others waiting in the wings?  No one whom you are waiting for?"

...He's openly speaking of Gerald to me.  Shit.  What if I called his bluff, then?  Settled this confrontation face to face?  ...No, I'd get us all killed, or end up killing him in the conflict when he tries to silence us all.  "Nothing that's laid out in my orders, Sire."

It's then that I hear Geillg'a's multiple silver tongues whisper into my ear.  'He's holding Bruce and Wagner now, Tchae.  I can feel them through him.  The lad doesn't have those two boys kept safe anymore...though they keep him safe, it seems.  Gun-stealer.  Hoarding chicken of a half-serpent-blood pomped-up ruler.'  I hold back any reaction.  If the Peacock King has Gerald's Arms, it means Lyric's been compromised.  As to what else of our operation could have been blown...who's to tell?  'I could talk to 'im.  The lad.'

I almost snort in reaction.  'Geillg'a, the poor squirt would shit his pants if he heard your voice between his ears.'

'All the more reason to do it, then, I think.'

The King leans in closer, and both Geillg'a and I have to suppress the instinct to strike.  "Jhe Briarseal?  Is there a reason behind that strange glower on your face?"

"I was consulting with my Arms, sir.  They do make us appear that we have hemorrhoids."

"Ah."  He looks positively made of stone, for some reason, as if talking to inanimate objects were beneath him.  That's just absurd from a man who talks to plants.

"It's just their way.  Sire, are you sure there's no further use that Jhe Cruxradia can be put to?  He finishes clean-up tasks with remarkable efficiency."  Oh, his eyes light up with that idea.  Good.  I need to stretch out some time in which I can further consult with Geillg'a.  I don't want him to suspect any of our interference.  Lyric has been put in far too much danger already.  'Talk to the boy as much as you can while this one isn't hovering over his shoulder, then.  Being alone is probably a rare opportunity for him.  We should be able to find out a great deal from him.'

'Aye, Camden.  I'll ensure that the Spruce Lord here doesn't overhear us through Bruce and Wagner's metal-bodies, but I've the feeling they already have that covered, the dears.  So nice that they've managed to protect the lad all through this.'

I give her a mental nod, then listen as the King cheerfully lists off ways in which Jhe Jaxhelshon could be put to further use on his Palace Grounds.

* * *

Having spare time isn't something I've grown accustomed to lately.  Now that I have it, I'm in the bath, trying to have a private moment.  Of course, that's just not possible.  Not in this place, and just not for me, anymore.  If it's not the nymphs and other creatures that the King has sprinkled throughout my quarters, it's Gerald's blasted guns.  They just don't shut up!

'Aye, I do pity you in that, lad.  You've had to put up with their chatter for days, I imagine.  We think that's why Gerald gets arrested so much - their incessant prattle has made him a little soft in the head.'

I jerk upwards in the water, splashing a wave over the side.  A tiny nymph chitters at me in a scolding tone, then flounces off.

Who was that?  I didn't recognize the voice.  For one, it was female.

'You've met me before, though not truly met, as you've not bled on me, which is probably to your liking, I'll admit.  Camden bears me to and fro where I wish.'

I blink.  I don't understand.  This shouldn't be possible.  Also, I didn't think Camden's Arms would be a girl.  Not...not that there's anything wrong with that... 'I...beg your pardon, miss.  I didn't recognize you.  Is there anything I can help you with?'

'Ah!  Such a dear.  Calling me miss and everything, like a well-mannered boy.  I don't think I've been addressed as 'miss' by anybody who wasn't already on their knees and sporting injuries.  You're certainly smarter than your brother Gerald, then.'  She pauses.  I...I think she lost her train of thought.  'Ah, yes.  Tchae Camden inquired as to your well-being and your brother's.  I found your mind by tracing Bruce and Wagner's trail.  They never do clean up their mess.'

'Ach!  The wench has found us.  Bloody hells and dirty trails.'
'Maybe we should just get 'im arrested again, save us the trouble of talking to 'er.'

Camden's whip sniffs at them, an oddly metallic sound, like razorblades whispering against each other.  'Two fools, the both of you are, and as well-matched to your Armed as any could hope to be.  Let me talk with the poor lad before you make his mind an awful mess with your bickering.  Off!  Off with you!'

I feel the pair of guns shuffle away, the strange smell of gunpowder lingering in my nose even over the scented soap I'm using.  The grumbling tapers off, and I feel a little less crowded.  'I...what does Camden want to know?'

'Testy, you are.  Common for any that deal with my Armed.  You'll get used to it.  He's concerned for your safety.'  I have the strangest sensation of being sniffed over by something that shouldn't very well have any sort of nose.  '...Boy!  Are you wearing his collar?'

I shrink down in the bathtub.  It doesn't come off, no matter what I try.  My fingertips are raw from it.  I even tried the bullet on it, to no avail.

'Could have lost a finger doing that if Bruce and Wagner didn't like you as much as they seem to do.  Come, boy.  Don't hide it.  We worry for you.  The boys, at least, seem to have blunted it from stealing over your mind.  How ill do you fare, wearing it?'

I curl a little in the bathtub, then decide to start scrubbing again.  I still feel so dirty.  I don't want to climb out of this tub ever.  'I pretend to follow orders.  He thinks he has me pretty well controlled.  I could disobey, if I wanted, but he's more dangerous if he knows I'm free to do as I please.  I don't let him know.'

She nods, and I hear thousands of razors chime against each other.  'Clever.  Admirable.  Keep focused on your will and don't let him take anything from you.  How does the animism fare?'

'Faun is tired, but fares well.  He's talked to me much about the Peacock King.  I have a story to share, if I ever make it out of here.'

'You have many stories, I am sure.  Tell me one of yourself.  The King has Bruce and Wagner now.  He's obviously found you out.  How much does he know?'

I look down into the water and tuck my knees up against my chest.  'He's...he wants to believe I'm loyal.  He still needs me, I think to train Faun.  He thinks I helped Gerald because I knew him from Radia and didn't want him to get hurt.  He also thinks Gerald blackmailed me, which he sort of did, since he threatened telling Daddy about me being here.  I made it all sound like it was the truth, which was easy, because it was.  I'm a little afraid, but I think it's working.  I just don't know how I'll be able to get out and keep both Gerald and I safe.  And uh...Gerald...'

She sets her attention closer on me, making the hairs on my neck raise.  It's like being aimed at.  'Yes?  What?'

'Gerald's working in the King's labs, except he's under a non-binding contract.  The King tried to force him into a servitude contract by threatening Jenny.  Except the King thinks Jenny's Gerald's wife, so it didn't quite--I'm sorry?'

She keeps making this choking, grinding noise, like wrenching metal.  I realize it's the Arms equivalent of a belly-laugh.  'I'm sorry.  That's very amusing.  Please please do go on.'

'Gerald's alright, since the contract had a clause in it about Gerald's wife, which he doesn't have.  He's pretending to be under contract and he seems to be alright.  We're all...okay, I guess, but I have no idea how long it will hold out, and I don't know how to get us all out of this without getting someone hurt.'

'Aye, but Tchae Camden will, so you just act as you have been and keep talking to Bruce and Wagner.  They'll keep you safe however they can.  As will the rest of us.  Even though you don't believe that at all, do you?'

It's chillingly like being questioned by my Father.  'I...I'm sorry, but Camden put me in this position and it was the bullet that caught me.  I don't understand why he didn't just keep it.'

'Because that's how Camden did it, the silly git, and he'll kick himself enough for it before you ever get a chance.  Talk to him about it if you want.  You'll have the chance soon.'

I blink.  'I will?'

'We won't let him take you or the animism or our Armed, even if that Armed is a stupid wretch who winds up in a cell every other week.  Chin up, lad.  Arm yourself however you do that, and keep writing.'

'I haven't written any of this since I left your company on the way back to the Palace.'

'Well, you will write it, because I can feel the words m'self.  So don't fret.  Tah!'

I scrunch my eyebrows.  "...Tah?"

'She's always that flouncy.'
'Not as bad as some others I could mention.'
'Aye, there is that.  But even then, she's flouncy.'
'Can't be helped.  Camden's a fancy lad.'

Then they both chuckle between my ears while I pretend to have some solitude for once.

* * *
Recorded from an excerpt of Peacekeeper Camden Briarseal's Travel Log
* * *

Pulling at the echoes of their tinny voices in Lyric's head, Geillg'a homes in on the guns and closes in before they can throw a guard up against her.  Silent as a feather falling over the blade of a knife, she regards them where they rest.

I didn't think she'd be able to trace their location without calling the Peacock King's attention to it.  She chides me for underestimating her ability, and I return that scold with my praise for exceeding my expectations.

Jenny may love that whip, but I don't think she'll ever get Geillg'a to purr like I can.

'Aych.  Look at the two of you, all chained up and hooked up and...what is that on your trigger, dear?'

Wagner glares at her through his barrel.  'Careful it doesn't slip and I fire at something you might miss.'

'Tut!  No need to be excessively cranky at me, dear heart.  The King's the one what hooked you up to this, correct?'

'Aye, that be so.  Gerald's almost got it better off than the two of us, at this point,' Bruce's dusty voice crackles to Geillg'a.

Geillg'a has a rage in her so fierce that I have to block it from the Peacock King.  I don't blame her at all.  He has the Arms chained to a metal table, strange cords and wires threaded through them and down their barrels.  I can feel the equipment buzz even through her, and it sets the hairs on my neck on end.

'Warn the Judge.  That collar 'round our Armed's neck is trouble.'

Geillg'a glares.  'For what reason did you permit this indignity to yourselves?'

The guns are silent for a moment.  Wagner answers.  'We have no reason to answer to yer demand, but an answer we will give: we did not have the compulsion to fire, so we did not shoot that turkey-arsed bastard.'
'He means the Peacock King, not the Judge.'
'Ach.  Yea, the Judge be a bigger, meaner turkey than this tarted-up poultry trollop.'

Geillg'a is silent for the moment.  She is restraining herself from whipping two young pups.  It would cause too much commotion to make it worth it.  'That is sufficient, but if you let Gerald or that lad slip into any more trouble, gods help ye, I'll Aim at ye for it, and I will not miss.'

'Aye, as per usual.  A fine day to ye.'

'And just what does he plan to do by twining you about with that many wires and bits and...whatnot?'

'He's attempting to measure us.'  Wagner's voice is choked, as if he's trying to hold back laughter.
'The Law is strange to him and must be quantified, it seems.'
'Gerald is his true target.  For now he only investigates.  He will eventually attempt a bind, one beyond a badly-worded contract, on our Armed.  We will turn on the cocky regent then.  His days are numbered, as it is now.  Pity he doesn't realize that.'

I let my concentration slide back to myself, and after such a statement, it's strange to look at the King in the eye.  I still do.  He doesn't manage to hold my stare for long.

"So I suppose that dispenses with my concerns.  Thank you, Jhe Briarseal, your comments and suggestions were most illuminating."

"Always a pleasure.  Ah, Jhe Akribastes."  I delight in the tiny little jump the monarch makes as I say that.  Gerude walks into the arena from behind the King, then makes a smart, proper bow to him.

"Your Grace, it is a true honor that you visit our hallowed training grounds.  And thank you, at that, for giving us these hallowed training grounds."  I almost kick him for that, the fop.  Just like his twin in the worst ways.  But Gerude's grin catches the King in ways that make him exceedingly uncomfortable.  I can see the sweat begin to bead on his brow.

Beginning to feel guilt, perhaps?  Or at least realizing that retribution may come upon him for his transgressions?  ...Too much to set my hopes on.

"Your gratitude is most flattering, Jhe Gerude.  Please, go about your morning routine.  I do wonder," his gaze skirts back to my eyes, "may I be your audience for a time?"

...Odd.  I'd expect him to scram back and attend to his seedy little plottings--

'Geillg'a.  Send an alert to Jenny, and keep an eye on the boys.  He's planning something.  I think he's keeping me here on purpose.'

She radiates a smug smile.  'Little does he know that my reach extends even farther than his grasp.  Shall we dance here, then, while I also dance with other couples?'

'Always.'  I make a bow to the King.  "Of course our host may watch the sport."  I then turn without another word, unsheathing Geillg'a as I do so.  I know it chills him to be so close to her when she unfurls, the many-jointed tail of cold silver whispering through the air.

Gerude only grins, watching me approach, and waits to see just what game I have in store for the morning.

It will certainly keep everyone on their toes.


31 - The Heart That Rooted Itself in the Forest

Do you know, I actually manage some real sleep for what might even be several hours?  The sensation is so unfamiliar that I almost wake up from the shock of it.  I even have a dream, though I don't remember it, like happens with most of my dreams.

At some point, though, I rouse from true rest and into traveling.  At least I have some idea of where I mean to go, or was going to go - well, okay, I'm trying to explain away the fact that I just end up in here.  Outside the bars, true, but still, I'm crouched on the floor outside Faun's cell.  I look up and into the prison.  He's asleep, now, but not very deeply.  He looks troubled, and he keeps twitching.

"Faun?"  I keep my voice low, even though I know I can't be making any real sound here.  Still, the Peacock King hears farther than the boundaries of the physical world, and he's not the only one that can do so.  Faun shakes awake and tilts his head to face me.  His eyes open, deep and dark in this light, like amber.  It's like being studied by an owl.

He smiles.  "Lyric.  Come in.  I've missed company."  He gestures inward, and to my surprise, the door does open.  He laughs at my confusion.  "Your dream has different doors than my reality, Lyric.  You should be free to enter, much as I am not free to leave, even in the world of my own dreams."

I walk in slowly, waiting for some alarm to go off, my nerves set on a hair-trigger.  When nothing happens, I settle down, sitting just outside the range of his chains.  "Your own dreams?  Even in those, you're chained down?"

Faun's eyes narrow, and the corners of his mouth draw back.  It's not really a smile, more like the reaction to biting into a lemon.  "The Peacock King's collars bind on all levels, Lyric."  He cocks his head at me, and his eyes look hazy for a moment.  It's like he's trying to see something that's not quite there.  Perhaps that's exactly what he's doing.  "What...I don't understand.  You can't be wearing one.  You can't be here, Lyric, if he's collared you."  He looks at me in the eye then, trying to see if I'm telling a lie just by dreaming myself into his cell.  "...How are you doing it?  More importantly, are you okay?  I...I can see...smell what he's done."  He's so confused and so deep in thought that he's forgetting to speak very clearly.

I look away from him.  "Ebrellin-i...he...he did try to collar me tonight.  He did give me a pet-name."  I shiver.  I don't want to think about it or acknowledge it, but I have to face what happened, if I'm to keep myself from being fully bound.  "I'm not sure what he did wrong.  He's been very careless lately, and I think he didn't take the time to cast the proper spells.  He's failed to put me to sleep before, and I saw..."  I swallow the words down.  I don't want to talk about it.  That would make it real.  I want to forget that, too.  I want to forget so much.

"Lyric."  I barely meet Faun's eyes.  He's still studying me, looking deeper than I'm prepared for.  How much can he read from me?  It's creepy to think about.  "Did he bring you under someone's power?"

I shake my head.  "I've...seen him...under someone's power, though.  He doesn't know.  He thought he'd sent me to sleep, and then he was asleep too, and then I watched him sleepwalk..."  The images dance before my eyes again, just as Ebrellin-i danced for the Jherent Nul, and I banish them away.  "Faun?  You were going to tell me, once, of the Peacock King.  Is he...is he really with them?  With Nul?"  I don't want to believe it, as much as I've already seen of it.  I want to un-see that night so badly, wipe it all away, but I can't.

Faun is the one to look away, then.  "...It isn't something anyone would want to believe, as hated as the Peacock King is in some circles.  I...I don't know.  But I can tell you a story of him that no others have heard."  He sees he has my attention.  "I've valued my forest and my animals far too much to tell it before my imprisonment.  He keeps a tight grip on any information about his past.  He...he could have attacked, you know, if I had crossed him in that way before.  Now it is too late for those concerns."  He looks so pained and desperate, like his leg is stuck in a bear-trap.

"I'll listen.  Must I keep it secret?"

Faun shakes his head.  "It is past the time that this can remain secret, and almost too late for it to be of any use.  It's fortunate in ways I can't convey, Lyric, that you are able to hear it, and that I am not completely alone now."  I remember the story of Rapa Nui, and the desperation on his face, the pallid tone, strikes fear into my heart.

"...Faun?  Are you okay?  I've heard stories about what captivity can do to your kind."

He shakes his head, but he still looks like someone in great pain.  "I will survive, Lyric.  Don't waste your energy worrying about it."  He looks out at the bars.  "I miss the sight of my forest, all the same.  Can you imagine trees, Lyric?  Trees instead of shining steel bars, rough bark running all over their sides like mud-clotted fur?  Little sprigs peeking out along the trunks where leaves sprout and branches might soon grow out?  The sun in drops that manage to fall through the tiny holes in the bright green glowing canopy above?"

He sighs.  "That is home, Lyric.  The Peacock King has been there, though it was not the first time I met him.  He was a child, that first time, and I was not welcome in his house, but they let me come in, all the same.  None could stop an animism from walking where it wished to tread.  The Law, as always, has been on our side."

* * *

The Xaillyndesse family.  Yes, I know you've heard of them.  Everyone's heard of them - well, that's what they'd like to think, in any case.  If you ask any other animism, it might get chancy.  The dryads and other nymphs, yes - but only because the Jhe o'Audiva Rocale is so well-known among them for taming so many of their kind.  With him among them, and the Jhe 'hLogos among them, the Xaillyndesses are quite the powerful family, wouldn't you say?  But they're not famed for the amount of royalty in their ranks.  Those of that line can cause trouble and intrigues without all the ugliness of attending a throne.  The Peacock King and the Poet King are exceptions to the line.

But their status as exceptions was already confirmed before they ever rose to power and took their crowns, Lyric.  Perhaps I started it all for Ebrellin-i.  Perhaps not.  But I met him before he even earned that accolade.  When I met him, he was Ebrelle-heni, the heir, and that additional title of heir-to-be wasn't even allowed to be spoken aloud yet.  In speech and address, he was only Ebrelle.  What right he had to the throne he'd later take was not enough to raise his status in Court, or keep him safe from the criticisms of his conservative family.

Yes, I do suppose he was an exception even before I met him.  He saw, Lyric.  His younger brother did too, but at that time the later-to-be Jhe 'hLogos, Eleth-travente, was too young to draw attention or scorn for his differences.  Too small a child for anyone to take proper notice of his abilities.  Ebrelle, however, was already a rather ancient seven years old, certainly enough for the Xaillyndesse family to scrutinize him in every way possible.

He talked to plants, Lyric.  He spoke to them, and they would speak back.  He was making friends with the dryads and the tinier spirits, with individual blades of grass.  He saw many things, and heard many more, and all those things liked him because he would stop and watch and listen to them.  His parents were worried that word would get around of their now-elder son's eccentricities, and tried to quiet them, to no real avail.  He was quiet in his own way, talking most times in the garden, with no other humans in sight.  But he was so blissfully unaware of anything strange about his behavior that he brushed his parents's admonitions away like so much pollen off of his sleeve.

When I came walking onto their property they scowled down at me like I was some mongrel dog who'd shat on their lawn.  I did consider it, at that, but first I wanted to visit their son.  They couldn't deny me that, because of what I was, and the Laws.  But I could feel their hatred all the same, and I knew they'd soon look upon the boy as truly strange.  They had been right, though.  Word had spread, though not among the humans and their precious society and Courts.  Word whispered through the grass and the leaves, trickled along the streams and brooks, until it came to me by birdsong.

So I came to him, as was only right.  I was the one to visit humans, most times.  Of my kind, I knew the human ways better than most.  He needed to be spoken to by one of us, one of his...kindred.

It burned the Xaillyndesses to think of my kind as kindred to one of their sons, you know.  But it was true.  Ebrelle was, in many ways, closer to my kind than theirs.  Perhaps...no, I know for fact that his mixed-heritage Mother feared that her pact with a Dragon for a new son to replace her first would result not in a powerful child, but in a wild-touched one.  As if her own purposefully-mixed blood wouldn't be enough to put the feral into his veins.  She'd been born with a quarter-heritage of something fae, and before she'd borne any children she'd made one of those pacts with some supernatural creature.  She was famed for her pacts.  And she wondered why her children were so much more than the normal humans in her society!

Such an interferer, she was, and utterly insane to boot.  Of course, being aristocracy, she had the privilege of such madness as being just 'her way'.

Ebrelle was a very special child.  Brilliant, attentive, and very caring.  He had a beautiful mind, and wanted to communicate with those of my kind very much.  Most of all he wanted to learn of the true wild, of nature uncaged and untamed, outside his castle walls.  When I finally had to leave he wanted to follow me out, but I couldn't very well pull the heir to a crown from his castle and into the wild at the tender age of seven.

Well, I could, but I didn't, something I've come to regret since.

It got back to me on the wings of a pixie.  A very rumpled, very sad pixie.  Following her were a few other spirits that had been driven from Ebrelle's home.  I went there myself, to see, but didn't come close to their land.  I could feel from there that she'd done something to the grounds, something maybe to the gardens as well.  Like fencing, or wards.  Something none of us liked, and hurt us to be around.

It hurt me that Ebrelle was inside that, but I had to accept that there were some things I couldn't change on my own.  I wouldn't enter the grounds.  It could cause harm to me, or one of his family might be insane enough to attack me.  I would not endanger my animals like that.

So, instead, I wrote.

You might think his parents would prevent such a thing, but they had no idea that I was even literate, and could not tell from my letters that I wasn't someone just as 'well-bred' as them.  I even had access to fine stationery, quill and ink.

Ebrelle answered immediately.  He missed me very much.  But it wasn't possible for him to leave and meet me again.  Not until he was older.  Not until he had enough power in the Court to grant him that clearance.  And not until, it seemed, he had managed something quite difficult, and requiring quite a few strings to be pulled.

Yes, I know you're wondering.  Sorry, but I wanted to give a proper dramatic pause, like a Poet would do with this story.  He wanted to pass on heirship from himself to his sister.  He didn't want the crown.  He didn't care about it, and wanted his own life instead.

He...almost managed.  Yes, he really did pass it on.  But to his young brother, Eleth-travente, instead.  His sister...well, she's a separate story, all on her own.  

He came into the wild to join me, Lyric.  He wanted to learn of himself.  Of his forest-heritage.  He wanted to truly live up to the dragon's blood in his veins.  And he did come to my forest.  He did learn.  He took a strange path outside of it, one day.  Then he disappeared.

A year later, he reappeared in the Royal Court of Lyianneth and forcibly took back his crown inheritance from his brother. It was then that he declared himself the Peacock King and changed his name from Ebrelle, the heart of the forest, to Ebrellin-i, the dark in the soul of the forest.  He bore the marks on his face that so many associate with his signature animal.  I know you know by now that those marks are more than paint.

That is the story I have dared not tell to another.  His parents would never dream of leaking it. They preferred Ebrellin-i to Ebrelle, after all.  His siblings...who knows what things happened back then to them to silence them?  Ebrellin-i himself would be the only other to know, and he would never let such personal details about his past slip, especially ones questioning how the crown came to him.  I have kept silent on the matter, out of fear for what retribution might be had from the Peacock King...or the Xaillyndesses.  It has never been important enough.  The past most often stays in the past.

But sometimes that changes, especially when Poets come into the scene.  I always wanted to know what happened to him, when he left my forest and a year later showed his face as the Peacock King.  What happened to the Ebrelle I knew, and where the person that came back wearing his face came from.

* * *

"You look afraid."

That brings me out of the haze of concentration I was in.  I blink, look up at him.  The chains on him catch my eyes and I have trouble actually focusing on Faun himself.

"You're tired, Lyric.  Maybe you should go to sleep."  My eyes manage to focus on Faun's face.  The animism looks concerned.  "Sleep, Lyric.  I imagine you don't get enough of that."

"But...there's so much to talk about...so much to do!  Gerald's being held in the Peacock King's labs now, and I...I just don't want to go back, Faun.  I don't want to wake up with him!"  That's the real core of it, isn't it?  I'm putting off going back to the waking world...where I'll have to deal with all of this.  My skin crawls.  "I...I have that collar on.  I don't understand why it's not controlling me like it could, Faun."

He nods.  "Mine can only drain my energy, as the Peacock King cannot make me his pet without breaking what I am.  For some reason, he refuses to do that, which admittedly is a relief to me.  As for yours...I could be wrong, Lyric, but it seems as if something is shielding you."

I feel the hollow metallic echo of a laugh behind my ear.

"...The Arms.  Gerald's Guns.  They made me take protection under the Law.  Something about how the King would try to take my will soon.  I...I guess they were right?"

Faun tilts his head, weighing it.  "Well, it sounds right enough.  Can't you tell by yourself?"

I blink.  'I...I guess I could ask you?'

'Nay, it's too funny watching ye guess at everything and flounder.'
'Ye're sort of like a baby duckling who's gotten 'imself stuck upside-down in the water.'
'Distressing, but too amusing to correct it.'

Faun watches me glower at what seems like nothing, then barks out a laugh.  "It must be the Arms, then.  You almost look like a proper Armed, with that expression."

"What?"  Now I'm just annoyed at everyone.

Faun giggles, the sound strangely like a snarl.  "They're always looking at their weapons like that."

I let out a deep sigh.  He watches me for a moment more.

"Go to bed.  I refuse to talk to you any more until you get sleep.  You're too cranky right now."

I mumble something in response and do the mental equivalent of rolling over to let the other side of the mattress cook.  Soon enough I'm in real dreams again, something about dumplings being stuck upside down while I'm trying to cook them for the Peacock King's brunch.  Gerald's revolvers are the only utensils I have, and they just keep laughing at me.


30 - King's Pet

I can't say Faun is happy to see me right now, but at least I can be sure that most of his glower is reserved for the Peacock King.  I gulp.  This might be the most antagonistic I've ever seen the animism look.   What's worse is that Faun turns his face up to me and shares that glare with me.  I shrink back.

The King's hand behind my waist keeps me from getting far.  He presses me forward.  "Go," he says, his voice clear but quiet in the room.  "Speak to him."  That strange air of absurdity and liveliness has left Ebrellin-i now that we're not in the labs.  Now he's as cold and composed as before.  It's weird.  He seemed almost deranged in there, but it somehow felt like it was closer to his personality than this chilled aloofness.

I step forward, my hand subconsciously drawn up to perch on the coil of my whip.  My fingers curl around the braided leather.  I look him over.  Maybe a little paler.  Just a little gaunt.  Most definitely meaner.  Chained too far away from the bars for me to worry about that little measure, though.

My thumb strokes the leather of the whip.  The role comes to the fore without me even needing to call it up. "Faun-doe.  Such a pleasure seeing you, after a long absence from the cage.  How fares you on such an evening?  Well, I hope."  The animism's shoulders jerk with my use of the pet-name, but it has no effect on him.  Of course, only the Peacock King would be able to truly use it to its purpose of binding and control.  The rest brings little reaction.  He cocks his head.

"What do you care of it, little boy-slut, King's toy?"  The corners of his mouth perk up as my face goes granite.  I see fangs peek out from behind his upper lip.  "Why are you outside of the pen?  Come, prove yourself to him, earn a few precious more inches of his bed."  His hair raises up on his scalp as the taunts.  He's puffing up like a cat.

The King's hand pushes behind my back, urging me forward.  I step towards the cage just as he sweeps his hand, unlocking the door.  It clangs shut behind me as I walk in, whip uncoiling and kissing the floor underneath my feet before the tip of it snaps right above Faun's head.

The animism doesn't even blink.  His fingers do clutch at the floor, his nails extending to his claws.  I hear a 'shhh' behind me from the Peacock King, and then the animism lurches.

The King waggles his finger.  "Bad little toy.  Be nice to your master.  Pay him your respects just as you would me, Faun-doe."

Faun lurches, stopping his fall right before his chin hits the floor.  He glares up at me and spits.  I answer with another whip-pop.

"You simply must expend your vocabulary, J'Lotus.  He won't listen to reason.  You must show it to him."  The Peacock King claps his hands twice.  "Teach him his role, Trainer."

I execute a complex bow, the whip arcing over my head and then under in a sweeping circle.  It pops in front of me at the end of its arc, almost connecting with Faun.  There's some tiny part of myself in the back of my head that's shaking in terror from the damage that accidentally striking him could do.  It's a very quiet part of me, though.  I don't even need to shush it.  It knows better than to peep up right now.

Instead I sweep my arm in front of me, the whip whistling over Faun's head.  "Come, fox-one," I grin, "rise and join me in the dance."

"Burn and curl into your pyre-grave," he hisses back, "and leave be the quiet ones who would watch over the ground you'll rest in!"

I reach forward, hand cupping the underside of his jaw, fingers digging in.  He blinks, and deep in those eyes I see a flicker of confusion.  He didn't see that one coming.  I was too fast.  Which means this place must be getting to him more than he realized.  Worry ghosts over his face, and then the expression freezes.  I almost give us away, then.  I almost show my own confusion.

Instinct tells me to go along with him, though, even though I'm risking getting my own throat torn out here.  "Saving your servitude until your masters pass is such a waste, Faun-doe."  He doesn't actually give under my grip, but his arms go slack just a tad.  Good.  I know I really didn't do that, but good all the same.  "Give your will to the Kings of the Living World, like all good creatures must do."

I blink.  There's a hand sliding over my own.  Faun's fingers ghost over my knuckles.  I feel the oddest sensation in his throat, and realize he's purring.  From a creature that looks like a grown man, it's extremely creepy, especially with how his eyes are hooded right now.

'Just think, little one.'  I hear Faun's voice between my ears, and see just the tiniest ghost of a fox-grin on his lips.  'He might eat this up so much that you'll do double-time in his bed.'  He feels my suppressed revulsion at that.  'Aww, does he hurt you?  Frighten you?  Don't deny that it still excites you.'  The pang of hurt that causes makes him study me a little closer.  'How have you been surviving?  You should visit me.  I could teach you tricks to turn the dead in their graves, and his bed into one.  At the very least, an escape...'  He thinks over my own mental objections to that.  'Come to me by your pen, or in your sleep, or both.  You need to get away from him.  I'm beginning to see his mark on you, and fear it mirroring itself in me.  Now, why not end this in a success?  I do so love pretending.'

I nod, then back away, sweeping my whip in front of me.  It whispers across the floor, stopping in an arc in front of the animism.  He looks down at it like a cat stalking a toy on a string.  He then looks up at me, almost asking aloud what I intend for him to do with that.

"Kiss it," I say.

His eyebrow raises.

"Kiss it, and maybe this will be over."  I don't let it show, but this is making me nervous.  I have no idea if Faun feels like doing this.  Certainly he's pretended quite a bit already.  It's in his best interests, after all.

"Fine, master," he says in a chirrupy voice that might be all sarcasm and no truth at all.  He leans down, grinning, eyes up at me, and barely nudges the thing with his nose.  "That should be sufficient, yes?"

I narrow my eyes.  "A mere kiss?  Surely you can manage that."

"Surely I cannot, for I am a dumb animal, unteachable and untrainable."

"Then kiss it the way a vixen kisses her cubs."  My grip tightens on the whip, my knuckles standing out white against my skin.  Faun observes this.  I'm not sure if it's what prompts his next action.

"Oh.  A kiss.  Such a simple thing."  He leans down and licks the whip, then nuzzles it, yellow eyes smiling up at me the whole time.  The hairs raise up on the back of my neck as I realize he is pantomiming an entirely different sort of kissing.

I gulp.  "Thank-you-that-is-sufficient."  My voice is tighter than usual.  A little choked.  I can't control it - he's doing things to that whip with his mouth that I've seen harems practice on cucumbers.

His chuckle climbs up through the room.  "But I'm having fuuuuuuun..." His words roll into a low, easy purr.  The action is cut off as I jerk the whip away, then pop it above his head.  He jerks back at the motion, one he didn't expect in the middle of his ministrations.  He's still grinning despite it, damn him.

"Easy, now."  The Peacock King's voice brings me back into the present.  "Come out now.  Your performance was sufficient."

Even though I didn't want to perform that dance well for him, I glower at the lack of praise in his voice.  Faun watches me leave.  I remember his request as I exit.  You should visit me.

I should.  He's the only one that would understand what I've experienced by the Peacock King's hand.  He's the only one who can tell me how to escape that hand's reach.

That hand settles behind my waist again, as we depart.  Once we're past the point that Faun can hear us, he pats my back.  "Better than you think, and quite noteworthy.  I only think you could do better, if taught more.  And I do so love helping you reach your potential, J'Lotus."  There's a growl in his voice I don't like. A...another purr.  "I enjoyed watching your show.  When did you teach him to do that, J'Lotus?  Your private training with him?"  That question asks so much of me.  Too much.  I let it go unanswered, and let him draw his own conclusions.  I'm worrying too much, now.  I suspect the next turn we take will bring me to his bedroom once again.

The passage reveals itself step by step, turn by slow turn.  My brow creases in confusion as everything around me begins to blur.  I recognize this place, yes.  It's the King's suites.  Why is everything so foggy, though?  Why are my senses getting so dull?

The King's hand raises, pressing against the back of my neck now.  His fingers get their grip around my neck slowly, easing me into the sensation.  "Shhh, J-lui-tiss.  Just let your senses sleep."

Even though he says that, or especially because he says that, my nerves rise up enough to make me swallow.  It's enough to focus my swiftly fading attention back on my neck, and the odd tightness around it.

"Sleep, my darling," he says, and as he snaps his fingers, I do.

At least...I seem to.  It's like when he tried to spell me into sleep when he curled around me in his bed.  It feels like sleep, but I'm awake through it, and I'm very sure that he doesn't know that.  He treats me like someone who can't hear and see him, who won't remember this in the morning.

I remember all of this.

He presses against me with a growl, pushing my body up against the wall and kissing up under my jaw, under the thin leather band around my neck.  His hands wander inside of my robes.  He's so frustrated.  Faun's show must have affected him quite a bit, because he pulls my sleep-walking body into the bed after scraping his teeth against my neck a few times.

There's not much more than the acts of a very greedy person once he's got my body sprawled on the sheets.  I don't recall it as a pleasant experience, but it's like something I watched more than participated in.  I'm so detached that in a way it almost didn't happen to me at all.  Almost.

His hands find my neck after the act, palms pressing up against the skin, fingers stroking the leather band.  I hear his nails rake over the collar.  I hear him speak strange words, and then there's heat around my neck, and commands that I hear and I don't think I'll obey.  I hope I'm correct.  I hear him give me the pet-name properly, then.  J-lui-tiss.  It makes me think of my Uncle, and that thought sends a shiver down my spine.

I should, by all accounts, be doomed now.  I've seen slaves that were collared pets.  I've spoken with them, even taught them to put on their makeup right, to walk pretty and bow low.  They have no choice but to obey their masters.  The collar is the physical proof of the bind, but the name itself is the seal.  To re-name a person is to bend them, warp them, re-make them.  In the case of pet-names, the person becomes the possession of the namer.  Usually this takes elaborate ceremonies and great trickery, but for the Peacock King, an expert in puppetry, it is of course a much simpler task.

He's made some mistake, though.  I can feel it.  My body will follow his commands for now, under the spell of sleeping, but if I fought it, I wonder if that would be the case.  That would be foolish, though.  Better to let him think I'm his.  Better to play his game without him knowing I'm playing.  He looks so pleased with himself, now.  Just like he was so pleased when he revealed the identity of Gerald's 'wife'.  I'd like him to stay pleased, just like that.  All haughty and puffed-up and blissfully ignorant of the truth.  While he's like that...

...While he's like that, he won't notice what's under my mask, or under Faun's and Gerald's.  Under the masks of all of us, including the Armed that Jhe Camden leads.

If it takes convincing him that I'm his happy little puppet to achieve that, then we're in luck - it will be so simple that I could do it while asleep.  In fact, I already am.

He releases my body sometime after his additional commands and reinforcements, and no small amount of gloating.  I sleep in his bed.  Thankfully, sleep does come this time, with no visions of him playing his own role as a servant again.