27 - Valued Servants

I feel more a watcher in this scene than anything else.  Perhaps that's what I am, as I'm pulled down these hallways, lower and lower and darker and darker.  The Peacock King knows I'm here.  He's the one bringing me with them, after all.  But Cade hasn't looked at me once since he entered the dungeons where Gerald used to be kept.  He hasn't mentioned me, and...well, I'd consider myself worth mentioning.  I've already been privy to secrets that not many in this Kingdom would likely know of, such as the King locking up Poets and paying someone to...do something with them.

Maybe Cade just lets the King take care of his own business, and doesn't care about naught else.  But I don't believe that.  He's too cunning and underhanded.  Underhanded, sneaky people like knowing everyone's business, and don't like anybody knowing theirs.

So why doesn't he notice me?


I jump.  I almost mistake him for Gerald in my head, but that's the King.  I see him sneak a peek over his shoulder at me, confirming to me that he is, in fact, speaking into my mind.

My...my King?  What is it?  I sound confused, but...well, I am.

I am keeping you hidden from that man.  He will overlook your presence, and the fact that I am holding your hand.  Pray do not give yourself away after I have spent such efforts to keep you a secret, yes?  You are a valued servant of mine.

Of...of course, my Lord.  I blink.  Can he really do that?  Tricks that murky and deep?  I see the jewel in his crown wink, glowing with a light that can't be reflected off of anything in these darker chambers.  He can see what's hidden, seek into minds, make his voice heard silently, and obscure the truth...all things I've heard about the Peacock King.  Very little that I ever believed before I came here.

"Leige, please allow me to go in ahead of you and neaten the place up just a bit for your royal person.  It is not often that I entertain such an esteemed guest in here."  Cade says the last words in such a pretentious tone that I suspect he's mocking the King.  How the King puts up with it I don't know.

Ebrellin-i only nods, then waits outside the door.  "I will pause here for a minute, then, if that is what you need."  Cade jumps a little.  I wonder if he was trying to buy more time than that.  ...Of course.  Of course he was trying to buy more time.

How can the King not see it?

Sometimes for rats to dance we must put up with their smell, J'Lotus.  Do not doubt me now.  And guard your thoughts more closely, please.  You're abnormally loud.  Perhaps I should take you aside at a later time, and teach you a few useful tricks to do with that mind of yours. For now...focus on quiet, little trainer, and watch.  Always, always watch.

His rainbow eyes look over me, almost comforting.  I try to put a wall around my thoughts, try to think quietly.  If I hadn't seen him in the mirror last night...if I hadn't seen the dances he did himself...perhaps I would look forward to what he offered.

Now, I'm not in a position to know what to think.  I'm only here to watch.  ...Gerald.  I get to see him again, in person.  My heart aches suddenly, and I try to keep that quiet as well.  I don't want Ebrellin-i to notice something so strange from me, right now, and I certainly don't want Cade noticing me at all.

The door opens.  The...door I can't describe as well, strangely.  I can describe it even less than I can describe Cade.  Strange wards crawl over me as we enter, as Cade waves us in.  Or rather, he waves Ebrellin-i in.  I almost get the door closed on me.

Ebrellin-i's grip on my wrist is like iron, but I don't mind it, even with the pain.  I just don't want him to let go of me.  His grip is also a reminder that I really am physically here.  With everyone else ignoring me, it's more like I'm just the ghost of some writer watching the scene, like when I've visited Gerald or Faun by writing about them.

Gerald.  He's on that bed still, chained down.  He's asleep, his head tilted to one side, mouth hanging wide open.  I would be remiss if I did not mention that there is a silver trickle of drool oozing from the corner of his mouth.

Cade's hand gestures to the Armed Poet, palm up.  "As you see, my leige, he has been resting peacefully here.  With no harm done to him."

The Peacock King walks through the room in such a way that it's obvious he's trying to touch nothing in it, even with the edges of his billowing robes.  "As is evident by the bruises and cuts on him."

"Of course, nothing lasting, m'leige.  As you can see, everything is in order.  May I return him to the jail above, or shall he be kept here?"

"How did you know he was Armed?"  Ebrellin-i acts as if he didn't hear Cade's question.  It doesn't throw off the man, though.

"I recognized him as one."

"Ah.  So then, he knows you, and knows you're working with me, and is thus unreturnable.  Excellent work, Cade.  You have rent my precautions unneccesary with only the efficiency you yourself are known for.  Tell me, would you also like to send off a letter to the Poet King telling him of his current whereabouts, or have you already done me that courtesy without properly informing me?  I am expecting great things from you now, and would hate to be disappointed by a lapse in your diligence."

Cade is quiet, his lower lip oddly pursed in a way that seems to  attempt to hold anger in, but comes across more like a pout.

"Fix it."  The King pauses.  "No...no.  You've done enough fixing.  You're ordered off duty until I can be sure you'll no longer take these abrupt measures behind my back."

"...Ordered, my leige?"  Cade's voice is dangerously even-toned.

"Commanded.  If you prefer that sort of word.  I can always clap you in irons, something I suppose you fail to consider every time you traipse about without any due consideration to my rules and sovereignty here."

"...Of course, my leige."  Now he is far too quiet for me to feel comfortable here.  Behind him, I see Gerald wake.

My brother schools himself well.  His eyes don't widen at the sight of the Peacock King.  He tries to be as beneath notice as is possible, in fact.  He doesn't appear to see me, but that's not surprising, considering that Ebrellin-i is shielding me.

The Peacock King notices him, though, and it's obvious Cade notices when Gerald wakes up.  I see the man's shoulders stiffen, in fact.  What, was he hoping my brother would sleep through this?  Will he try to sneak my brother out of here to the same place that Jhe Camden's brother Elric is being kept?  I hope as hard as I can that my brother can find a way to make that not happen.

The Peacock King steps forward before Cade can make a reaction.  He stands before the chained-down figure, though turns slightly to the side so that he also faces Cade.  I find it telling that he doesn't turn his back on that man.  Cade only watches the King, wary.

That leaves me behind the King, looking straight down at my brother...who still doesn't see me.  And as much as that means more for his safety, I almost wish he could see me, because I miss him so much.

The Peacock King reaches a hand forward, almost traces Gerald's forehead with a fingernail.  He doesn't quite brush the skin, though.  Gerald flinches.  His eyes are too dialated in this light.  It's obvious that whatever the Armed Poet see now, it's not quite what's in front of him, though I can tell he's managing to gather some semblance of what's in front of him.  The Peacock King waits.

"Ah, the Jhe o'Audiva Rocale.  I'm honored by your visit."  Gerald's voice is a little too prim, as if he's holding back a giggle, or a cough.  Cade himself makes an odd strangled squawk of surprise or dismay.  "I'm sorry if I'm not keeping the place up well enough to your liking.  It's a little hard to get around these days, as you can see."  He's...at this kind of time, my brother is joking?  Of course...of course.  As expected of Gerald.

The Peacock King smirks, but doesn't laugh, only looks over my brother.  "Pray tell how did you receive these wounds, Poet?"

"Ah, that's a funny question.  That's more one for Jhe Cade, here.  He's surely got a clearer recall of it.  It's kind of foggy, all those times he beat me up.  Or his men.  Really hard to tell the moments apart, Sire!  Sorry for my lack of proper witness.  It's been a doozy of a stay here."  Oh dear.  He's half-loopy.  ...No, definitely more than half.

"Such a loyal Poet, trying so hard to answer my questions honestly."  The Peacock King looks away for a moment, at Cade.  Then, almost at me.

I am sorry, J'Lotus.  I cannot think of any way to spare him that wouldn't bring immediate harm to my Kingdom.  Jhe Cade has done a beautiful job of disarming me in that.  You did so care for how I treated those innocent pawns sent out to spy in my Kingdom...I'd like not to fail you, but I must.

...I have to think carefully about how I reply to the man who currently holds the position of my King.  But I have to think quickly.  I can't lose my brother.  ...Sire, might you still be able to keep him?  Surely...surely you won't kill him...he hasn't earned that sentence.  Surely there's a place you can put him where you keep things safe!

Ebrellin-i blinks externally, while he still looks down silently at Gerald.  Cade's slowly growing a smile on his face, that he's trying unsuccessfully to hide.  I wonder if it was his aim all along, manipulating the King so he'd have to kill Gerald.  Of course that was it.  I can't see how it could be any other way.

Ebrellin-i considers.  Gerald looks back up at him like a man who unfortunately does have some idea that his very fate is at stake, right now, and all he can do is wait.

...Can you keep secrets for me, J'Lotus?  Secrets you'll tell none other?

I can.  I will, if that's what you require of me to save him.

...Very well.  Ebrellin-i straightens up.  "Jhe Cade.  Unchain your prisoner.  He is remanded to my custody." 

Cade blinks in a stupor.  He was obviously not expecting things to go in this manner.

"I will escort him to a more proper resting place."

Cade's eyebrows knit together in confusion, but he unlocks the chains all the same, including the cuff at the very end of the bed.  Gerald gets dragged to his feet, lifted up under the arms by the King.  I feel my brother pass out from the vertigo of moving abruptly and wonder with a troubled heart when the last time was that he'd eaten a real meal.  The King slings my brother over one shoulder as easily as he would a towel, and my brother's limp enough to drape just like one.  He does this all one-handed - he's still holding my wrist with his other hand.

"Jhe Cade.  If you please.  His hat."  He says it so primly and with such regal haughtiness that I want to smack him across the face.  "And any of his other effects that you've squirreled away here, if you please."

I hear Cade mutter an affirmative from the other side of the King.  I can't really see him - the King is holding me out of Cade's sight, keeping himself between the two of us.  I do hear him rummage for a few things.

"That's very little you have in your hands there, Jhe Cade.  Did you leave the rest where it originally belonged then?  Ah, good.  Your presence is no longer desired on this day, then.  Please go about your other tasks.  Perhaps we will speak on this matter later, when other matters are attended to."  The King begins to saunter out, holding me in front so that Cade, behind us, can't see.  "Oh, and Jhe Cade?"

"Yes, your Grace?"  Goodness gracious I can hear his teeth grind as he replies.

"I want you to be most wary of Jhe Camden Briarseal and the rest of the Armed.  They have invited a member of their troops that appears identical to our Poet here.  An Armed named Gerude Akribastes.  Given that this Poet's father is quite obvious from his face, I'm sure you can think of the many implications of this.  Please do be careful."  For all the sake of the damned, I'd swear he almost sounds concerned for Cade.

I keep my mind quiet as I puzzle out how stupid Ebrellin-i could be, yet so clever.  We leave.  I only hear one reply from Cade.

"Yes, leige.  ...Thank you very much."

The door closes.  Ebrellin-i passes the hat to me, filled with my brother's few belongings that Cade had taken.

Careful that you don't look through them, J'Lotus, for that there may be traps in the bundle.  Just carry the load, whilst I carry this one, until we have a place to set both down, yes?

I nod.  He smiles.

You did a very good job, J'Lotus.  I am proud.

* * *

I keep an eye on Gerald as much as I am able.  We walk out of range of Cade's room soon, but still the King remains silent.  We take a different route back out.  Not into the dungeons Gerald was kept in before. This is a different path, and it feels like it leads directly into the palace proper.

I feel the tickle along my neck that only coincides with one thing in my experience - the King's personal suites.  I can't suppress the cold shiver that runs down my back.

"Yes, the wards are very tight here, J'Lotus.  Appropriate, I thought.  But no place to keep your dear ex-countryman, is it?  No, not at all."  He pauses, looking down at me.  The wink from that jewel set over his forehead is too strong, but at least the look in his eyes is still somewhat sympathetic.  Not like last night...

Was it only last night, that I saw him dance like that?

"Here, you keep a watch on him."  He eases Gerald's body down and props my brother against the wall.  "See that he doesn't awake and cause us any trouble.  Please remember, no matter whether you two were allies before...he is a danger to you now, J'Lotus."  He takes the hat from me, begins to look through it with precision and care.  "Ahhh.  I see he took very little, then.  He wouldn't dare keep any of it.  I could smell it on him if he had.  And he's already in danger of losing his job as it is... Oh, J'Lotus.  Good help is so hard to find, I hope you realize.  Now.  Let's see.  Ah, trap, trap, trap.  Bugging device that he can't listen through behind these wards anyhow.  A few odds and ends."  I see a few objects and tiny specks disappear in flashes and sparks.  "Now, then.  Ah!  The good Poet's quill.  I do wonder where he kept the Arms to match it.  Those, at least, might be easier to find now...have you ever encountered Arms before, J'Lotus?"  His gaze suddenly swivels and pins me.

I freeze.  He smiles.  It's a smile that says nothing of what he thinks.  "You practically had an exhibition with the Armed you stayed with during our journey, didn't you?  I don't suppose they let you touch them?"  I shake my head.  "A shame, but a mercy at the same time.  Those Arms read just as easily as Poets, often.  Even moreso, with the right Armed.  Or is it the Arms that make the Armed?  You know, I've never been quite able to tell."  He sees me blink.  He gestures to me, allowing me to speak.

"...Sire...I'm really not sure at all when it comes to the Arms.  They're really quite scary, and..."

He waves my objection away.  "It is no matter.  Tell me though, J'Lotus, a little more of your experience with your friends while we have a sit-down outside the place I'd prefer we keep our good Poet friend in.  Yes?  Then we might have a few ideas as how to proceed with this whole mess."

He taps Gerald on the shoulder.  I actually make a little scream as Gerald moves, hoists himself up, and then stands in front of the King.

His eyes are still shut.  He...he gives off every sense of being asleep.

The King only smiles, a wry little twist.  "A parlor trick, J'Lotus.  It's easy, once someone is subjugated in my chambers.  You'd know that."  I...my mouth hangs open.  He twirls his finger around, and Gerald turns with the gesture, then walks ahead of us.  "Come along now, J'Lotus.  He'll outpace you if you're not careful."

I feel my heart begin to beat faster in my chest.  Is he going to turn into what he was last night, again?  Into the person before we slept, even, that treated me like I was his doll?  I don't want to see that person again.  I don't want him to be that.  I was so hoping I'd never see that again.

"Shhh.  J'Lotus.  Your fear might wake our Poet friend.  You've done nothing wrong today, and in fact have every cause to be happy, as I've granted your boon and am keeping the Poet alive and well.  Come, now.  We'll have time to sit and talk, and even have tea and dine, just a little further on."

I follow.  I hope his words aren't just empty, meaningless things.  I can't put too much trust in him, now.  Not after all that's happened.  Even as much as I want to, as much as I wish I could...

I just hope, most of all, for Gerald's sake.  I got him into this mess.  I must be able to get him out.

The halls we walk through are strange.  The walls are carved ivory, the floors some sort of onyx.  Dragons twine and coil all around the corridors and doorways.  Lamps keep the way well-lit.  More tyrotyles, I think, or perhaps something even more exotic.  Ebrellin-i stops before a pair of dark, wooden doors.  They have the figures of mermaids carved into them.  ...No, dryads.  Tyrotyles.  Haerphytl.  Murntl.  Even a pair of Animisms...  Ebrellin-i brushes his fingers over the door lovingly.  Gerald just stands there like an idiot.  The King is holding his hand.  I wonder if my brother feels that, in his sleep.  I wonder if I could make him pee his pants while he's standing up like that.

"...J'Lotus, did you giggle?"

"...Sorry, Sire."

He shakes his head and sighs.  "Past these doors...you cannot lie to me, J'Lotus."

The hair raises on the back of my neck, a strange sort of heat paired with it, as if Father himself is breathing down it.  "Yes, Sire."

He nods.  "I thought it fair to warn you.  I am bringing you into my heart, and far scarier things than mere puppetry may happen in here."  He sees me nod.  "Well, then.  For the sake of one you wish to save."  He brushes his fingers in a circle over the surface of the doors, the seam between them splitting the circle halfway.  "Let us enter my abode."

They open.  No fanfare, no fancy tricks.  We walk in.  Gerald walks slowly.  After he crosses the threshold, I see him falter mid-step, and the King catches him as he slumps sideways.

Ebrellin-i tsks.  "Too tired already?  Very ill-kept he was."  He waves me inside.  I enter, and the doors close behind me.

Ebrellin-i watches as I choke a little on how thick the air is.  He waits for me to gain my equilibrium back.  "I'm sorry.  I should have warned you.  I bring others in so rarely.  Here, have a seat in one of those chairs.  I think our Poet here deserves a lie-down on the couch, yes?"  I sit, almost falling into the seat.  The air here is heavy.  The incense is thick, but it's not the incense.  It's just...

...Well, it's Ebrellin-i.  I watch him lay my brother across the couch, then carefully drape his hands across his chest so that his arms aren't dragging.  "There we are.  Now.  I did say there would be tea."  He gestures to the low table that the chairs and couch are centered around.  Tea is there, in fact.  A steaming pot, and leaves for whichever brew Ebrellin-i might care for.  "I do enjoy it fresh, as you well know.  If you please?  You may use the mint, and your choice of blend, if you prefer it."

I kneel on the floor and set to preparing the tea properly.  It's somewhat strange that Ebrellin-i would have me make the tea after he told me to rest and collect myself, but I don't mind too much.  In a way I'm happy he gave me this opportunity.  I'm collecting myself much better in this role than I would just sitting there, tense and waiting.

"Ah.  Good.  You may have a seat while it brews, J'Lotus.  I shall take care of the rest."  He rises, then walks off a little, out of this narrow little sideroom and into air that shimmers and suddenly becomes a kitchen.  I blink.  He returns with a tray of breads, cheeses and meats.  I'm starting to wonder about his clever stash of incredibly attractive, convenient, filling foods, but that pales in comparison to a magically-appearing kitchen.

When I stare at him in confusion, he merely beams at me.  "Isn't innovation grand?  Here, try the beef."

I do, and while I'm doing so, Ebrellin-i himself pours the tea for us.  He pours three cups.  One he sets in a saucer at Gerald's end of the table, even though my brother has not yet woken.  One he sets in front of himself.  One he hands to me directly in some sort of ceremonial manner.  I take the saucer, bowing my head.  As I do, I spy something lying in the saucer.  My hand shakes.  I, for all my manners and Court courtesy, manage not to spill a drop of tea, even in this moment of shock.

"I am giving you this chance to explain yourself, J'Lotus."  The Peacock King watches my every move as he casually sinks back into the cushions of his chair and sips at his brew.  I continue to stare down into my saucer, but have the presence of mind to lean back and sit properly.  I even bring my cup to my lips.  With the cup gone, the object in the saucer rolls into the center, focusing my attention on it even moreso.

The bullet.  The bullet Gerald's Arms gave me.

It was in my cigarette case, which was tucked inside my sash, which the King practically ripped off of me last night.  I remember the sound of the case hitting the floor, then.  It brings back other painful memories from that act.  Tears prick at my eyes from the resonance of those memories.

But the bullet wipes them away, wipes away everything with the clear and cold precision that I've come to associate with the Armed.

The King is staying silent for me.  Giving me a chance to plead my case.  I'm already thinking about my Father too much - one more thought of the Judge is too many.  Not when it's really Ebrellin-i.  He's not enough like my Father, and yet too much like him for my comfort.  I don't want to think about that, much as some would poke at that.  Going from one prowling, possessive person to another...I don't like to think about Daddy like that.

The bullet.  The bullet cleans away all those thoughts, too.  I find staring at it helps me find a calm within me.  Helps me speak when I would choke.  Helps me find the Truth in a way that won't put me in the hands of the Unjust.  As if I'd made some sort of call, and it had given me aid in a time of need, even when it'd caused all the distress in the first place.

"...I am grateful for the chance you're giving me, Sire.  I understand that you could have rightfully killed me already."  Ebrellin-i nods, then stirs honey into his tea.  "May I ask if you've found his Arms yet?"

"Some Armed would cry disgrace for how much dirt got on them.  Yes.  I can find a gun by its bullet, especially when they are such Guns as those.  I knew last night, if you'd like to know.  I tried not to let it come between us.  Last night was..." He looks away, rolling his hand in a gesture.  "...business."  He sees my sad nod.  "Why do you ask, J'Lotus?"

I keep my eyes on the bullet.  It makes everything clear.  Precise.  It cuts out the distractions.  "I wanted to know if it would have been any use of me to tell you.  I...I want to ask questions, I am sorry.  I know I should explain myself rather than ask you to explain things.  It's very sudden for me...you know that.  I'm sure you know exactly how I feel, Ebrellin-i."  He nods, and gestures for me to go on.  The pressure to talk is very, very light.  He's choked things out of me much more forcefully before.  That in itself eases my nerves.  "Sire...I didn't want you to kill him.  I didn't want a war.  I was afraid, and caught, and I didn't know who to turn to or what to do.  I hated misleading you, but..."

"You love peace."

"Yes!  Yes I do, Sire!  It was so hard...the Guns themselves, they scared me.  The bullet, too.  The Guns told me to carry it when we rode out to travel.  I thought they'd shoot me if I didn't.  And I was so afraid for the Poet...I didn't think I had a choice, Sire."

He nods, the handle to the teacup perched so precise in his knuckles.  "Why were you to carry the bullet, then?  I've been curious about that for almost a day, J'Lotus."  He could kill me.  Right now.  He will kill me, right after this next reply, if I don't answer him how I should.

'Don't worry, little one,' I hear the bullet whisper.  'Ye're safe in the eyes of the Law.'

Good gods, I don't think Ebrellin-i heard it.

"It...it was the Poet's plea for help, Sire."  No it wasn't.  I know that's not it.  But...somehow it's not a lie either.  But...the way I said it...Ebrellin-i will think it was so the Armed--

His hand isn't on my throat.  He is leaning over me.  And his hand, with those sharp nails so poised as if they were claws, is very near my neck.  Enough to end me in under a second, if that's how I'm to go.  I...I still look at the bullet.  I can see his reflection in the bullet.  Darker than he looks with naked eyes.  Blacker.  Twisted.

Aiming for me.

"I didn't give it to them, though.  I did show it, before I was taken right there as a traitor aganst Radia.  Jhe Briarseal...Sire, he recognized me.  He's pretended not to know me, but he remembered me from when I lived in Radia."

"Oh.  So, you were lucky to have that bullet with you, weren't you?  Such good fortune for you.  Am I to believe that...J'Lotus?"  He moves just a teeny bit closer.

I gulp.  "Sire...I watched him shred a comrade of his to pieces.  I told him things, when he asked.  I did tell him of the Poet.  I answered their questions.  I was afraid.  They didn't take the bullet from me, though.  I...I don't understand that."

"Surely they knew I'd find it."  He raises an eyebrow.  "Did you think about that yourself, J'Lotus?"

"I..."  I blink, looking up at him for a fraction of a second before a glint from the bullet steals my gaze away, before my eyes can look upon that jewel in the Peacock King's crown.  "I thought they were protecting me...they said they were."  The emotions churn in my chest.  Why...why did Camden leave the bullet with me?  He should have taken it...for my safety and Gerald's.  The King sees my face twist in confusion, senses the hurt in me from the question.

"Did you ever stop and wonder how much you could trust them?  Or was it simply blind?  Why would they protect you, Lotus?"

My shoulders jerk.  I suck in a breath, my chest jumping with the action, another breath following at its heels.  A tear rolls down my cheek, warm where everything feels so cold.

"Maybe they wanted you to die for this, to cover up their own sedition and trickery."

He puts a hand on my shoulder, stilling the shakes that are going through my body.  When I start to cry more, he wraps the arm around my shoulders.  I'm not sure when his face nestled right next to mine, but the jangling of his earrings is the closest sound to my ears right now.  It almost distracts me from the glint of the bullet.  But still I go on talking.  Maybe that was for the best.

"I...I thought I was doing what I was supposed to.  I don't understand the Law.  I want to follow it, and I want to follow you, and I don't want to break your trust.  I...didn't think they were going to hurt me.  I just thought they wanted Gerald back."

"Ah.  Gerald."

"Jhe Briarseal recognized him from the bullet I had.  His brother looks so much like him."

"What else did Jhe Camden say about those missing in action?"

"He didn't think I should be privy to details, Sire.  He asked his questions and...drew his own conclusions.  You're...you're not going to hurt Gerald, are you?  For something Jhe Briarseal did?"

The Peacock King's voice whispers in my ear.  "You sound more terrified of him than you are of me.  Why, Lotus?"  His other hand cups the back of my head.  I don't quite feel searched.  I don't quite feel mentally gutted.  I can still see the bullet, and I realize it's actually an image in my mind.  The Peacock King's body is blocking my physical view of the bullet.

The one in my mind works just as well.

"He's really scary, my King."  I suppress a whimper.  He...he is.

"And I am not?"  I feel his hand on my back, stroking my shoulderblade.  Soothing me, even with the light scraping of his long nails.  The question is so calm, as if he'd been inquiring as to the weather.

"You don't have to be scary.  You're my King.  You don't have to beat someone up to get them to listen to you.  You...I would have run away by now, if you frightened me.  I run away from things I'm scared of.  I'm sorry."  All I feel is his hand on my back.  All I feel are the paths of his nails, stroking along my shoulder.

I'm going to miss being alive.  I'm going to miss Gerald.

"Did you know Jhe Gerald Akribastes, in Radia, J'Lotus?"  His hand stills.  I wonder when it'll come.  When he'll decide to lose me.

"I did.  I didn't feel like I knew him very well, though.  But we grew up together.  He was older.  I was more distant.  I...I made a lot of friends, there, but I felt like no one really understood me.  Gerald recognized me, when I arrived in your Court.  He told me I should be his ally, or he'd tell the Law that I ran from Radia and turned traitor for Audiva Rocale's soil."

He chuckles.  "You were hiding him from the beginning?  How brash.  I'm piqued."  His nails brush a little harder.  In that same rhythm, though.  Soothing.  Drawing the words out.  The bullet glints in my mind, and I find concentration again.

"I...I'm sorry sir.  I was trapped by him from the beginning."

"An agent, however willing, that he sought aid from upon capture.  Did he hide his guns with you from the beginning?"  Just one nail dragging along my back now.  Just one, drawing at my attention.  It's so hard to choose my words like I should.  I manage, but it's so tiring.

"No.  He sent them to me when he was captured.  They showed up on my bed.  The Guns told me to hide them, and help him, and...I think you know the rest from then on.  Sire, I uh..."

"Yes, Lotus?"  One nail-stroke.  I can feel his warm breath against my ear.  I can feel his earrings jangle against my skin.

"I saw things in my sleep, because of the Guns.  I saw Jhe Cade take him.  I...I wish I could have told you earlier.  He--"

"--Did you tell the Armed of him, J'Lotus?  Did you tell Jhe Camden of him?!"  He rears back suddenly, hands clamped around my shoulders, glaring down at me.  I can't pull away from his eyes.  That bullet still stays in my mind's eye somehow, and I'll never know how.  The Armed are a mystery I don't want to explore.

"Jhe Camden knew who he was, Sire.  I told him, because I didn't know-- should I have?  I don't know anymore.  Ebrellin-i, I just don't know what's right anymore!"

Instead of shaking me, or slapping me, or reacting to my panic in any way, he...he just looks at me.  Then, he laughs.

"Oh, you good boy, you.  I knew there was a reason I chose you, in the beginning.  I knew you'd prove yourself to me.  You've done well, you know.  So very well.  More than you'll ever know."  He brushes his nails over my cheek, scraping away a tear.  Then he stands.  "Dry yourself up.  There is a bathroom down the hall, to the right.  Make yourself as pretty as you want.  You don't want Jhe Gerald Akribastes to see you in such a state, do you?"  He pats my back.  "Come, come.  Finish your tea afterwards.  Off!"

I stand, shaking a bit, still.  "But...Sire...how?"

"You've proven yourself.  Go."

"Y...Yes."  I make a bow that's all memorization and habit.  I can't quite array my thoughts into something composed and orderly, but I can keep up my airs and graces like a true expert.  I head into the bathroom, seeing it as a welcome retreat.  I don't even notice the bullet's still in my fingers as I close the door.

I crash to the floor, wrap my arms around myself, and just shake, and don't think of anything at all.

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