Flower nodded and shakily took the starting pose. In the instant before the music started, he spared a quick glance over to the wall where Papa was, even though the head slave warned him not to. He couldn’t stop himself. Papa sat on the ground, arms folded and legs crossed, wearing nothing but a ragged pair of pants that only came down just past his knees. His unkempt beard spread wildly in every direction. His unbraided hair cascaded across his shoulders. He was scowling right back at Flower, but it was a thinking scowl, or a concerned scowl, not an angry one.
Flower wanted desperately to watch until Papa winked, or waved, or gave some little sign that things were okay, but he dared not look again.
The musicians began at a cue from the King, and the drums and flutes bid Flower dance. He began with a twirl, just like he was supposed to. The dance was intricate and difficult, and without Papa’s exercises getting him used to moving around like that, it might have been impossible. Flower focused on his feet, letting his arms follow. After a moment, nothing went wrong, and it seemed easier.
And after several more motions, easier still. His confidence began to revive, and the shame slowly receded. New Flower, who could learn to do anything. Old Flower wasn’t real anymore. New Flower, New Flower, he repeated over and over in his mind, in time with the music.
Fear crept back into his heart when he neared the middle of the song. He started to notice the gaze of all those stone-men and their King as they watched him; some nodded or tapped the ground in time with the music, but others smirked and chuckled to each other. Someone behind him laughed, and as the dance brought him to face the King again, Flower saw him grinning almost maliciously, his face little more than white, biting teeth encircled by opulence.
Flower stomped with the music. One two, New Flower, one two, then back and turn and the ground suddenly gave way as he stepped on a plate and tumbled backward so hard he smacked his head against the ground. He hit the ground so hard he saw a flash of white light, and when he leaped back up to resume the dance, a wave of nausea just about made him fall over again. He stumbled.
The King laughed, and immediately everyone else did, too. The nausea and disorientation of their laughter made Flower dizzy, and when he couldn’t immediately find his place again, the King threw a handful of food from his plate. It spread out it midair and struck Flower from his hair down to his belly button. He froze in terror. He had displeased the King. He was going to die.
The crowd, still laughing, began to throw food at him as well. The musicians played on, and Flower’s mind spun as he tried to think of where to resume. He hoped he could still save himself, if only he could remember where to…
Arthfael stood and raised his hand, and after a moment the crowd fell quiet. He said, voice still flat and hard, “You seem to have forgotten your place.”
Flower mumbled, “Yes, Master.” A lump caught in his throat. Death approached.
“Stand before me.”
Flower approached, trembling. It took all his willpower to obey. His heart nearly failed him.
Arthfael picked up a whip from beside where he was sitting. He spun it dramatically once overhead, then cracked it in the air. “Do you want to feel its kiss, boy?” he asked.
Flower choked out, “No, Master.”
Arthfael cracked it again, loudly.
Flower glance up and saw him gaze down menacingly from beneath thin, faint eyebrows. He gulped. His toes trembled.
“You’re lucky your skin is too pretty to mar,” said the man, his voice flat and hard as ever. He nudged Flower with the whip. “Dance, or we’ll make a drum out of it.”
Flower stepped back and cleared away his dancing area. That plate, he was sure, had not been there before. But why would someone drop it while he was dancing? Would they… A sudden realization drove his heart to thump against his ribs. They did it on purpose. The crowd wanted him to mess up. As he took the starting position, his knees trembled so much from fear that he thought he might crumple.
He risked a glance at Papa for the strength he needed. He found Papa scowling angrily back at him, angry enough to scream. Flower had never seen him that mad before without releasing his evil and killing something. Never. Sweat had gathered on Papa’s brow, gathering in big drops like they’d been squeezed out of him, and chest muscles bigger than a man’s head twitched and flexed involuntarily. For a moment, he feared that Papa was mad at him.
However, when Papa saw Flower stealing glances at him, he relaxed. Papa swallowed his anger enough to sit straight and with dignity. He folded his hands patiently in his lap. We are strong. We are better than them. Got it? he seemed to say.
Flower looked away. If he nodded or winked at Papa, they’d see it. But his knees weren’t trembling anymore. His heart wasn’t knocking a hole in his rib cage. New Flower pushed Old Flower aside and stood to dance.
When the music started, Flower was ready. His fear melted away as he showed them all how the dance was supposed to go. He moved accurately, perfectly in time to the drums. He caught Arthfael nodding at the drummers, and they slowed down, but it didn’t throw him. They sped up, and he kept pace. Someone rolled an apple under his feet, and he kicked it out of the way so it looked like part of the dance. Another stone-man sitting near the front of the crowd pretended to drop his cup onto the dancing area, but Flower saw and pushed it back to him with his heel.
Near the end of the dance, during the part where Flower had to shake his backside and wiggle his tail wildly, the King laughed out loud. This dance was obviously made for stone-men, who had no tails. The women who taught him had always grinned when he’d done it, but just did the move anyway If he shook his backside like he was supposed to, his tail flew all over, even if he tried to keep it steady.
Flower ignored the King’s laughter. But when the entire room joined in, he grew nervous. He almost changed the dance when he had to do it the second time, but he was sure someone would notice. So he shook his backside and his tail went wild, and the room erupted again in laughter. When after a moment, they saw he didn’t have to do it a third time, they grew restless. The dance took him near the edge of the crowd again, near the man who had dropped his cup. He had another one, full to the brim, which he splashed directly into Flower’s face.
The crowd laughed and jeered raucously as Flower stumbled. The stinking mead got into his ears and dripped all over, even down the small of his back. It burned his eyes. He lost his rhythm, and then his nerve. He didn’t have long to think about it, though, before someone else threw something hard that hit him in the arm. Something wet splashed on his side. Something sticky stuck on his stomach, then fell to the ground with a plop.
Flower tried to wipe his eyes while keeping up the dance, but he couldn’t see where he was going and tripped into someone’s lap. A stone-man snarled and pushed Flower back toward the dancing area. The crowd laughed even harder, drunken and feverish, and Flower soon found himself pelted from every angle by thrown food. Some even threw cups and horns and plates, which thunked painfully against his bones. He collapsed and curled up to protect himself and was soon covered in more food than everything he’d eaten since the King’s men had captured him.
“Get up, slave! Get up and dance!” roared the King. Flower tried to rise to his feet, but he slipped and fell into the pile of muck surrounding him. It got into his mouth and he tasted salt and gravy and felt deeply ashamed when he licked his lips and wanted more. He stood more carefully the second time and tried to wipe his eyes clear so he could see. His hands were too dirty, however, and it just made things worse. He licked his fingers and tried again, with a bit more success. He could blink through the water in his eyes and make out the room.
Arthfael asked, his voice harder than metal and colder than snow, “Are you still hungry, boy?”
The King took this cue and shouted, “Here! Have some more!” and tossed a bit of meat coated in sauce, which landed precisely between Flower’s ears and fell to the ground. Then the King glanced over at Androkles with a wide grin.
Flower followed his gaze and saw Papa so angry he was shaking. At any moment, Papa would unleash his evil and all of these men would die. Flower had felt that evil before and had no desire to feel it again. It choked away all breath and blinded thought. It was like hurling into a grave and never hitting the bottom.
He had to run. Right now.
The moment he turned toward the door, the edge of a cup struck his nose, just below his eyes. The pain swelled into his whole head and tears blinded him. He whimpered and gritted his teeth to avoid sobbing in pain, and he felt something inside of him break. He felt himself collapse inside and he knew himself to be defeated. He had nothing left. A splash of sticky sauce splashed on his neck and face, and he didn’t even bother to wipe it off. He stood, eyes and fists clenched shut, and shook with silent sobs as he waited for Papa to coat the walls in their blood. He would simply have to suffer through it.
The crowd went wild, shouting and hollering with drunken enthusiasm. They pelted him with anything they could get their hands on, and Flower fell to the ground and curled up to protect himself like the little weakling he’d always been. After a moment they left him alone, however, and turned their attentions elsewhere. He heard the thuds of body blows and ripping sounds and all sort of other mayhem he couldn’t make sense of. The room had descended into total chaos.
Papa’s evil didn’t come out. Flower waited and waited, but it never happened. Papa didn’t do anything to save him.
Something with an odd, squishy texture crashed against the whole side of his head, and Flower saw another flash of white and felt his brain shake. His skull ached and the ear on that side rang and stung, and when he opened his eyes, everything was indistinct for a moment. He felt nauseous and tried to take deep breaths to keep from losing whatever he had left in his stomach.
Then his eyes focused, and he saw what had hit him: a severed stone-man head, from off the wall. Its gray skin hung slack on the skull, like melting candle wax. Flower almost squealed in horror and wept; he frowned so hard that he bared his teeth, and a flood of tears ran from his eyes. He blinked them away and looked at Papa.
Androkles sat in the same position as before. He met Flower’s gaze for only the briefest moment, then turned away. Flower stared at him even harder, screaming in his mind, Papa, save me! Please! His tongue worked the words behind his grimace. Papa, Papa! Papa!
His adopted father did not meet his gaze again. Flower’s tears made it hard to even tell what Papa was feeling, or even looking at; everything was too blurry, and he couldn’t blink the tears away long enough to get a good look.
“Beynon, what are you doing down there?” said Arthfael from right beside Flower. His voice was flat as ever, but something in his body language made it seem like a swagger. The man reached down and lifted the severed head by the hair. “Beynon, you know what happened last time you wandered where you didn’t belong,” he told it.
The crowd laughed uproariously at this, and the King had to have someone repeat it because he hadn’t heard it. When he did, he clapped and shouted, “Put him over by the door. If he runs off, that’s one less mouth to feed! Ha!”
Arthfael threw the head toward the back of the room, by the door that opened to the road. Then he held his hand up, and after a moment, the room quieted somewhat. He paused to give the quiet an air of gravity. The crowd quieted further. Then he said, “My Lord, someone has made a mess of your Great Hall.”
Flower glanced up to see the King sitting with royal seriousness, all humor gone from his face. He turned his head to glare down at Flower, and Flower only barely lowered his head in time to avoid meeting his eyes.
“Who would dare, my son? Who would dare mock me in this way?” said the King, his voice heavy with power.
“It was your slave, my Lord. The dancing boy,” said Arthfael.
Flower felt a shock go through the crowd; he couldn’t quite tell what it was, though. Excitement? Fear? For his part, Flower was in serious danger of wetting himself.
“My slave did all this?” said the King, slowly. Appalled. Ominous.
“He did, my King. He danced so poorly your men rioted.”
“Bring him before me,” commanded the King.
Arthfael gripped Flower harshly by the hair atop his head, right between his ears. Despite the food grease, the Prince’s grip held solid. He lifted Flower with a jerk and muscled him forward, into the open area before the King.
Flower’s heart raced as he divided his effort between keeping his water in, and not screaming in sheer terror. All coherent thought fled his mind. He dared not even open his eyes. His legs went limp, and Arthfael held him up anyway.
“You have done this? Look at my great hall!” roared the King.
Flower felt a drop of wetness strike his cheek; it had to have been the King’s spittle, all the way from where he sat. Even had Flower dared reply, his terror would have made it impossible.
“Look, I said!” shouted the King, even louder this time.
Flower forced his eyes open to behold the devastation he had caused. It took real effort to unclench them; only his fear of the King made it possible. Food and muck lay everywhere. Trophies had been torn down, and not just the severed heads. The King’s guests, dirty and bloody, pulled their clothing back into order and took their places with wild but contented looks. The women and slaves huddled together for protection, still unsure if they dared resume their duties. Of all the room, only Androkles and the King had avoided the mess. Even now, Papa still didn’t look at him.
“He shall be flayed!” roared the King. In his voice Flower heard all the anger an inevitability of an oncoming thunderhead. A mighty river too swift to dam.
Flower lost his water then, and it ran in a warm stream down his leg. He moaned so loud it was almost a scream, then began keening. He knew what flayed meant—he had flayed a fish more than once. He wanted to shout for Papa to save him, but he couldn’t even force himself to make the words.
But he didn’t have long to dwell on it before a wave of pure force shook the room as Androkles rose to his feet. Flower gasped along with most of the men in the room at the power of Papa’s anger. It seemed to push the blood from his brain, and it nearly drove him unconscious. And it would have, had Papa been serious. Flower quickly realized that it was a warning.
Even the King reacted slightly, by raising one eyebrow in concern. Alone in all the room, Arthfael seemed unaffected. His grip on Flower’s hair never diminished.
Androkles stood with arms at his sides and slow rage smoldering in his brow as he glared at the King and Arthfael, daring them to continue. After a moment, his evil faded, and Flower could breathe again.
Prince Arthfael, his voice cold and flat as ever, said, “You think this pathetic little weasel is worth saving? Him? You’re going to fight to save him? You think he’s worth it? Come on, then. Come save him.”
Flower stared imploringly at Papa, but Papa never looked at him to meet his gaze. Androkles had his eyes locked with Arthfael, no matter what Flower wanted.
“He’s not worth it, is he? He’s not worth saving. You never really cared for him, you cuckold. And I don’t blame you. This child is as worthy of love as dirt,” said Arthfael, toneless voice almost like a chant.
Flower whimpered, “That’s not true!” to himself, so quietly no one could hear it. But somehow, Arthfael heard it.
The Prince turned on Flower and lifted him to his tiptoes by the hair. “Oh, you disagree? You are worthless. You are unlovable. You deserve to be a slave, and you’re not even a good slave.”
Had Arthfael spoken with anger or spite, or any emotion at all, Flower knew it wouldn’t cut so deep. But it sounded like he was stating a simple thing, exactly like saying ‘the leaves are green,’ or ‘rocks are hard.’ ‘Flower is worthless.’
“Do you believe otherwise?” asked Arthfael. Then he shook Flower by the hair to encourage him to answer.
“No, Master,” whispered Flower. He felt the words on his lips, and knew it wasn’t a lie. All the agony and tension and fear in his body, all the physical pain and emotional torment, had gathered together in a congealed, solid mass of pain in his heart. A lump of truth that Flower couldn’t wish away. No New Flower. No Old Flower. Just Flower, as he had always been.
“Do you disagree, Smudge? Is this child worth anything? Will you say a single word in his defense?” asked Arthfael.
Papa paused, then looked away, and Flower’s heart broke. The agony in his chest was as physical as a rock, pressing against his insides. Interfering with his blood and breath. Sapping his life. His sadness became physical pain, and he could tell he was closer to death now than when he was starving. His chest would split open then and there.
Arthfael said, “Oh King, shall we still flay him? Not even his so-called father will care.”
Flower saw motion from the corner of his eye from where Papa was, but he couldn’t bring himself to look.
The King sighed and said, “No, I’ve changed my mind. He is not worth the mess that would make. Have him wash the jewelry and give it back. We’ll have to think of something else to do with him. Let him be taken away.”
One of the slave women came forward and took Flower’s hand, then tugged it to lead him out of the Great Hall. He spared one last glance back at the man who didn’t save him. Androkles returned his gaze with a strange emotion on his face, but Flower was so lost inside himself that he couldn’t process it.
Then the glance ended, and Flower was whisked outside. The cold air didn’t bother him, and he didn’t reply to anything the woman asked him. She washed him off with a bucket of cold water and a rag, then pulled the jewelry from his unresponsive body. Finally, she led him to the hut where he slept on a thin pile of straw at the far edge of the King’s women’s beds, and left him there without a word. The others were still about their business, and without anyone there to offer him any warmth, he lay in frigid darkness.
After a while, he began to weep helplessly as he mourned for the person he once thought he could be. His own sobbing carried him off to sleep.