"Get up, rat," said the head slave. "It's time to dance for the King."
Flower jumped to attention from where he had been leaning against the wall. He presented himself, eyes downcast, back straight, hands clasped at his belly button. He gritted his teeth and impatiently waited for the head slave to rap him between the ears with that stick like he usually did, but the stone-man simply turned and led Flower out of the round-house, where he slept alongside the King’s women and girls, and into the open fortress.
The sun had gone down, but not too long ago because the sky was still a little bit light. It was a long walk, all the way from one end of the wooden-palisade-enclosed hilltop to the other, and the stone-man wasn't hurrying. He walked leisurely despite the chill of the frozen dirt paths soaking up into their leather shoes.
Flower could hardly stand it; he wanted to run everywhere as fast as he could. All day long, he’d just been standing there doing nothing but waiting. Waiting in ornate, red linen pants, no shirt, and lots of silver jewelry. Now that he was outside, the necklaces immediately turned freezing against his bare chest; but it didn’t matter. Even if the cold turned him redder than he was white, it didn’t matter. This was the first time they let him outside with shoes on, and he wanted to make the most of it.
But he couldn’t. He couldn’t ever look too happy or too sad, or someone would hit him. So he fought to hide his excitement by focusing on keeping good posture and not letting his tail wag all over like a happy dog.
The head slave wasn't an Allobrogian like the King and his people. After living with Papa and Mama and Garbi, Flower could tell apart the different kinds of stone-man. Allobrogians had pale hair, but not pretty like Garbi, and mustaches that drooped down over their mouths. Sometimes they had beards, too, but not like Papa. And their skin was the color of dried wheat stalks, usually. But the head slave’s hair and beard were black like Papa's, and his face was a different shape. His skin wasn't as dark as Papa’s, so he wasn't a Laophilean either. None of the other slaves would say where he was from, but once Flower overheard that he used to be a king.
Flower believed it, too, from the way the man walked. He didn't walk like a slave, even if his voice was humble. His steps were too long, and he walked with his chest out instead of hunched over. It was hard to tell what he was thinking, though, unlike Papa. Papa, you could always tell. He spent half the time scowling at things, so you knew he was mad and what he was mad at.
But right now, the head slave was walking slower than usual, leaning back slightly in his steps like he didn't want to get there. It was awful. After being stuck inside for so many days, Flower wanted to run, and stretch, and play, and see everything in the King’s whole fort, but he had to just follow. Slowly.
The head slave looked back once or twice to make sure Flower was still following him, but on his face was a soft look, or a sad look, and not an impatient look like normal. Flower felt some of his excitement draining, replaced by nervousness. Not much. Just a little.
The stone-man said, "Listen up, rat. The King's new slave will be there. You know who I mean. If you say one word to him—one!--you're going to be beaten and hung by your feet for a day. Outside. Don’t wave at him or pat your heart. Don’t even look at him. You’ll be punished, and you won’t like it."
"I know. They told me," said Flower. His heart leaped into his throat and pounded furiously. He could feel his tongue pulsing. He was so excited it almost didn’t seem real. Like it was a trick. He was finally going to see Papa again.
“And I’m telling you again so you don’t forget.” The head slave sighed and looked down at the ground, and Flower perked up his ears to hear better. The stone-man's shoulders slouched forward a bit, and when he spoke, it sounded like he regretted what he was saying. "Don’t screw it up. The King can have you strangled like a five-legged lamb if he wants and no one will care. Your only value is pleasing the King. No one else wants you.”
The words stung, even though everyone kept saying things like that to him and he was getting used to it. In fact, Old Flower had heard stuff like that all the time, and it wasn’t true anymore. He had a whole family now that did. Old Flower had been hated by everyone, even his old mother, even his brothers and sisters. Old Flower was bad at everything. Old Flower didn’t dare talk, and he was afraid all the time.
But New Flower was Androkles’ son. New Flower could sing better than anyone, and could use a sling and a knife, and could do anything at all if someone taught him how. Because that’s how Papa’s sons were. New Flower wasn’t about to let Old Flower come back, either. New Flower would grow up to be as great as Papa was, someday, like when he was seventeen or so.
The stupid Allobrogians thought they were making him embarrassed by dressing him in jewelry and teaching him how to dance. But they didn’t know that Laophileans danced all the time, boys and girls and even the adults, and the Allobrogians were actually just teaching him something good.
So Flower swallowed the shame and doubt back down and ignored the head slave’s mean words. He walked quietly, because trying to walk quietly made a person look graceful. The King’s dancers had taught him that. He smiled to himself, but only in his mind and not on his face.
Flower was shivering from the cold by the time they arrived at the King’s Great Hall. It towered over him, far grander than he’d imagined from the women’s description of it. In the torchlight, he could barely make out little animals and people and things carved into the wooden beams and door, and he wished he could stop and climb all over it and look at each one, but he couldn’t.
The building radiated power and skill, and Flower wondered what Papa thought about it. Papa hated everything the barbarians did, but even he would have to admit that the King’s Great Hall was a building worthy of a mighty ruler.
Flower flexed his fingers, imagining Pepper standing beside him holding hands. Missing Pepper was harder than missing anyone else. Papa could take care of himself, and Mama would take care of Garbi. One of them would have Wolfscar, too. But Pepper had been taken away all by himself. Pepper, his first and best friend, who loved him even when he was still Old Flower. Papa needed to hurry up and rescue everyone.
A startling shock of pain tore Flower from his thoughts as the head slave smacked him right through both ears with his stick.
“Do I have your attention?” asked the head slave with annoyance in his voice.
Flower nodded through the tears forming in his eyes.
“Good. You looked like you were letting your mind wander. Focus!”
Flower focused. The pain in his ears leaked down and spread all over his head, even in his neck. He grit his teeth and hunched forward slightly and took deep breaths, trying to blink away the tears and disorientation of having his ears smacked so hard. They hurt so bad he worried they might be torn, but he didn’t dare reach up to feel. The pain spread all the way into his jawbone.
The head slave said, “I guess I can give you a minute to get yourself ready.” Then he sighed and put his fists on his hips and looked toward the sunset, somewhat relaxed. Although the head slave had a disciplined face, Flower saw something like deep regret or pity there. It was the first time Flower remembered seeing anything like that from him; maybe the man was opening up and they could get along better? Probably not, but maybe. After a moment, the pain in Flower’s ears ebbed away into nothing. He took a few more deep breaths, nodded, and prepared himself to look graceful like the women had taught him.
With some hint of emotion in his voice, the stone-man said, “Listen, rat, there’s…”
Flower looked up as he paused. The head-slave didn’t finish, however. The man’s face twitched as though he were gripped with indecision—indecision that hurt him. Flower immediately grew uncomfortable, and even worse, the head slave said nothing for so long it became awkward.
Finally the man said, “Never mind. Come on.”
Flower asked, in his most unassuming voice, “What did you want to tell me?”
“Nothing. Let’s go,” said the head slave. He led Flower around the back of the King’s Great Hall to the slave’s door, which opened toward the tall wooden wall of the fort. Several trails leading off in multiple directions gave Flower the impression that the back end of the building was used more than the front, which he found odd. The trails back here were solid ice from being in the shade most of the time.
The stone-man opened the door, and a rush of warm air burst out, rich with the scent of meat and strong drink. Flower could almost taste the flavor on the air, and he must have been too obvious about how wonderful it was because the head slave reminded him, “None of that food is for you. Head on in. Stand behind the King’s women around to the left and do anything they ask. You will dance once the dinner is done.”
Flower lowered his head and walked in, then whisked in his tail as the head slave almost closed the door on it. The warm air wrapped around him like a blanket, invigorating and comforting. There was nothing to see, however; a flat wall of wood separated this entrance from the view of the King’s guests. A short hallway led around the sides to the left and right, and a low-burning oil lamp hung from a hook on the wall so people could see where they were going.
For a moment, he hesitated, wondering if he was about to walk into some grand embarrassment. But no one really noticed slaves until they needed a drink or dropped something, even Skythander slaves with pointy white ears. He turned to the left and followed the wall around until it deposited him in the Great Hall.
The interior lived up to every rumor he’d been told. Riches beyond anything he’d imagined decorated the walls and tables; pots from Papa’s people and every other land besides, ornately carved shields, stone statues of gods, gold-inlaid bones of animals, boldly embroidered cloths and tapestries.
Most prominent and abundant were the severed heads. The King had dozens, or hundreds even. Flower didn’t even try to count them. In fact, there was one right next to him, an arm’s length away. Its vacant and sunken eyes saw nothing, and its open jaw revealed a dried and shriveled tongue. It smelled like cedarwood oil instead of rot, though, and it didn’t look like it was falling apart. Flower had no idea how old it was.
The room swirled with sound and flavor and color and light, more than he’d ever seen in his life. Flower couldn’t take it all in; he rocked on his feet slightly, almost dizzy. Breathing the thick, rich air made him lightheaded. The light dazzled his eyes. He blinked rapidly, then shook his head so hard his ear bent wrong, which always stung a little. He straightened it with his hand, then took a deep breath to clear his head.
But the sound pressed into his ears, the sound of too many people talking, of drums and flutes and clanking and crashing, and the smell settled deep into his lungs, stealing room for air. He couldn’t quite get a hold on himself. His stomach swirled, threatening to make him throw up even though he hadn’t eaten today. He needed to be stronger; he needed to be New Flower. New Flower can handle this. New Flower…
A loud voice shouted over the chaos, “Ah, my new dancing boy is here! Come, present yourself!”
A cheer blasted across the hall, and Flower looked up to see that the King himself was the one who had shouted. The muscular man with a short, oiled beard sat on a pillow with gold-thread tassels, dressed in wealth from golden-winged helm to silver-thread slippers. Each finger wore a ring, and both ears had several. His handsome, fierce eyes stared directly at Flower, expecting orders to be followed immediately.
Flower found himself jolted out of his earlier disquiet into sudden terror. This wasn’t what was supposed to happen. He was supposed to stand behind the women, and they were going to dance first, and then he might after. But later, not now. He took several unsure steps out toward the middle of the room, and fortunately he remembered to look down instead of at all the free-men, and that made it easier.
Flower made it to where he was supposed to stand without stumbling, although people snickered and said things to each other like, “I’m supposed to believe that’s a boy?” and “Where’d they find such a timid little rabbit?” He stood, arms down at his side, head bowed, in proper slave fashion. New Flower can do this.
“Arthfael, tell us about our little dancer, here,” said the King. His voice contained amusement, but no scorn.
“As my Lord wishes,” said someone who sat near the King, and whose voice Flower didn’t recognize. He didn’t dare look up, either, because he knew what’d happen if he did. The man’s voice sounded hard and flat, like the ice outside. “Guests of my father, our entertainment. Tell us your name, boy.”
Without looking up, Flower replied, “Flower, master.” At this, the crowd laughed and mocked, thinking it a joke. He clenched his fists as a wave of shame rose up within him.
The King, a laugh still in his voice, said, “That was his name before we took him. It fit, so we kept it and made him a dancer. A boy named Flower! And such a pretty little thing, isn’t he? Just like a girl!” Again, the crowd laughed riotously.
After the crowd quieted down a little, the cold-voiced man near the King asked, “And whose son are you?”
Flower hesitated for a moment, unsure how to answer. He said, “No one’s son, master. Just a slave.”
“You weren’t always a slave, though, were you?”
“Whose son were you before?”
Again, Flower hesitated. Should he give a full boast? He chose against it and said simply, “I was the son of Androkles, son of Paramonos of Dikaia, Master. In the Glories.”
The crowd gasped all at once as vicious tension filled the room. Flower felt their stares burning into his bare back, and underneath it all, just a hint of Papa’s anger, just enough to know that Papa was in the room.
It took all of New Flower’s courage not to look up and find the source of that anger. He wanted to see Papa so badly that his throat burned and his eyes swelled with tears, but he dare not move his hands to wipe them away. The head slave had warned him not to look at Papa or talk to him or anything, so he couldn’t. And not now, with everyone watching. His heart pounded against the inside of his chest, enough to make him think he might die. He tried opening his eyes wide and blinking, hoping they’d dry out. They didn’t.
He was saved by Arthfael, however, who said, “Take a good look at him. Notice anything odd? Something that perhaps doesn’t fit?”
No one spoke, but a few people shifted their weight and grunted their affirmation.
“What could it be? Perhaps it’s the muscles. Smudge, stand and flex for us.”
Flower heard motion a few some distance to the right of the King, near the wall opposite where he had entered. After a moment of quiet, a few people voiced their approval and remarking on his scars.
Ice-voiced Arthfael said, “Now you, Flower. You flex. Let’s see if you have your father’s muscles.”
Without looking up, Flower nodded and lifted his arms and flexed his muscles as hard as he could, even his chest and stomach and legs. The crowd burst out into riotous laughter again, and the flame of shame rose ever higher. He wanted to be New Flower, but it was getting harder and harder not to feel like Old Flower again.
The King said, “When my Prince tells you to do something, you do it! Why aren’t you flexing?” And again, the crowd laughed, even louder this time, probably because they had to.
Flower obediently flexed even harder, gritting his teeth and curling his toes. He flexed with all his might.
The crowd’s laughter died away when the Prince spoke again. “It’s the muscles. The narrow shoulders. They look nothing alike. I can hardly believe this little creature is that man’s son. Never mind the white ears and tail.” Despite the joke, his voice lacked any hint of amusement. The crowd chuckled anyway. Even the King snickered. The man then added, “Friends, I do think our new slave Smudge is a cuckold.”
At this, the room crashed with laughter like a hundred trees falling at once. They clanked their plates and cups. They clapped their hands and stomped their feet. And through it all was an air of maliciousness and mockery that had been absent until now. They meant to shame Papa, and it was Flower’s fault, he knew. He’d never heard of a cuckold before, but he could tell what it meant: someone who adopts children. Flower had never realized before how far Androkles must have lowered himself in saving him.
The rising shame in Flower grew and grew and soon overwhelmed him, blotting out all thought. It burned away his resolve and confidence. Old Flower was the real Flower, after all. He wasn’t worthy of Androkles’ love, and Mama, and Pepper. Why did he ever think he was?
No, no. He could do this. New Flower could still do this. He folded his arms tightly across his chest to try and hold himself together. To keep New Flower from dying on the spot.
Once the laughter had mostly faded, the King grinned said, “Now Arthfael, if you point out such things, our little Smudge over there might stop being so obedient. Who would want to save the child of his wife’s lover? Let’s not say anything. He might not have noticed the boy’s not his.” After pausing to let the crowd laugh, he continued, “Besides, I called the little rabbit out to dance, and I don’t see him dancing.”
Arthfael, his voice as lifeless and flat and hard as ever, said, “Good King, please forgive me. I had no intention of delaying your pleasure. Drummers, are you ready? You are? Good. Now dance, boy, and don’t slip up in front of the King. Everyone is watching.”