Flower woke when someone put their hand on his shoulder and shook him, but he didn’t want to talk to anyone so he kept his eyes shut and didn’t move.
An older boy’s voice he didn’t recognize said, “Come on, I have to give you a bath. They’re worried you’ll get sick.”
Flower opened his eyes and saw an Allobrogian child a year or two older than he was, with a shaved head and dark eyes. The boy peered down at him with an impatient expression.
“I got one last night,” said Flower.
“She did a bad job. You reek. I have to see if you have cuts, too, so get up. Come on, before the water gets cold.”
“What?” said Flower. Before the water got cold? Did that mean it was warm? He sat up quickly and the boy grabbed his arm and lifted him the rest of the way. The King’s women were still asleep on their rich pillows and furs, all dressed in warm enough clothing to leave in a hurry if they were summoned.
“Don’t wake them up,” whispered the older boy. “Watch where you step.”
“I know,” said Flower, annoyed that the warning had been necessary. He had been about to step on a finger.
This was the first time he’d woken before at least some of the women. They liked to stay up late at night talking and it kept him up, and that made him have to sleep in. No one cared, though, because he didn’t have anything to do all day anyway unless they were teaching him the dances. But that was in the afternoon, never in the morning.
Flower wondered if the boy was actually supposed to be here or not, or if maybe he was here to steal him. Or pulling a mean prank, or something like that. But it didn’t really matter. Flower was too weak to fight the older boy, if it came down to it, and no one would come help. He wasn’t worth enough to bother protecting--but that also meant he wasn’t worth enough to steal, either. Who would want him?
The boy led him all the way across the fort, even though they were both barefoot and it was a long way. Flower stared at the frozen ground and tried not to attract attention. His toes hurt from the cold but that’s just how his life was. He was glad the sun wasn’t rising yet because the pre-dawn darkness matched how he felt. He felt like Old Flower again. Real Flower. He didn’t want anyone to see him. Being outside felt like the air was pushing on his from all directions, making his skin feel tight. Shame made his legs weak and his footsteps unsteady.
A sudden blast of hot air covered Flower’s whole body and just about made him jump in surprise. He looked up to find the older boy leading him through an open doorway into a square building made of cut gray stone. The floor was all brick, with little spaces in between that had mostly filled with sand or dirt. In one corner, a large, round oven made of thick, tan bricks burned with a red glow and provided the only light.
A pipe led to a leather bellows in the other corner and a pillow to sit on while someone worked it. A big pot full of water sat right in the oven’s door to be heated up, and another pot just as large sat steaming right next to it. Along the wall were all different kinds of containers: wooden buckets, clay pots, and cloth bags, of all shapes and sizes. Most of them held charcoal or red sand with red rocks in it.
The room seemed so welcoming and comfortable that Flower almost forgot the shame from last night. It was so hot inside it felt like summer, like he’d stepped halfway across the year at once. Hotter by far than even the King’s Great Hall. “What is this place?” he asked.
The older boy turned over a bucket and placed it right in the middle of the square room, a few feet away from the oven. He said, “You can sit on this. Your pants aren’t worth saving, so just throw them over there. I have new ones for you. And this is a smeltery.”
Flower found it strange they weren’t going to try to save his pants, since they weren’t ripped or anything and they fit him fine. Just wash them and they’d be fine. But Flower wasn’t going to argue over something new, so he stripped the rest of the way and sat and tossed his pants against the wall. A sense of normalcy and satisfaction picked away at the darkness he had inside.
The boy grunted with effort as he slid the big water pot over, the one that wasn’t in the oven. Once it was settled within arm’s reach, he dipped a cup in and gently poured the water over Flower’s head, careful not to get any down his ears.
The water was blessedly warm, almost hot. Flower had almost forgotten that warm water existed, let alone had access to any. It ran all the way down his body and the trails didn’t even feel cold. The water sank into the spaces between the bricks in the floor without leaving a puddle.
“What’s a smeltery?”
“It’s… that thing over there is called a furnace. You put the ore in, and then you do the bellows to make air heat up the fire so it melts. I do the bellows. That’s my job.”
“Oh, okay. I know what a bellows is. We used to have one. But I didn’t know anything about ore or melting it. What happens when it melts?”
“It turns into iron,” said the boy. “The smiths take it out and make stuff with it. Nails, tools, knives. Stuff like that.” He was doing a very thorough job of washing out Flower’s hair, rubbing and poking and rinsing. He was gentle with Flower’s ears, too, and didn’t drip a single drop of water inside them. It felt nice.
“Are you a slave too?” asked Flower, after sitting there enjoying it for a minute. All his tension was getting wiped away with the water and muck.
“Yes. Why do you think I’m washing you instead of asleep?”
“Oh.” That made Flower a little nervous, like he was intruding. But that was silly—the older boy had come and gotten him. It’s not like Flower had asked, so it was probably fine. Right?
Satisfied that Flower’s hair was clean, the boy said, “Okay, close your eyes.” He poured a cup of water on Flower’s face and started wiping it clean with the cloth. He washed hard, and some of the bruises from last night still hurt, like on his eyebrow and his cheekbone, but Flower tried not to show it. For once, he was grateful his fur hadn’t all grown in yet. It’d be a lot harder to clean than bare skin.
“Sorry, I can’t tell what’s a bruise and what’s just dirty. It’s really… stuck on there…”
“It’s okay. It doesn’t hurt that bad.”
“Good. Just keep your eyes closed. I don’t think you’re cut on your head anywhere.”
After the older boy was done with his head, he moved on to Flower’s shoulders and back, pouring the warm water and wiping and rubbing until he was clean. Each time he found a new bruise, Flower winced because it was so sudden. The boy was careful in those spots after, though.
“How long have you been a slave?” Flower asked. “It’s only been a few months for me.”
“You belonged to Smudge before, didn’t you?”
Hearing that name again made Flower tense up. Anger and shame gathered in his chest and turned into a tight little ball that undid all his prior relaxation. Mocking Androkles’ good name was almost enough to get him to lose his temper or weep from shame, both at the same time. But the boy didn’t mean anything by it, probably, so Flower kept it inside.
“I’m Androkles’ son. Sort of. He adopted me. I wasn’t a slave before.”
“Oh. I wondered if he had a Skythander wife. I’ve been a slave since… for three years, I think. Three or four. The King cut off my father’s head.”
“Oh,” said Flower, suddenly embarrassed. He didn’t know what to say to that.
“He hangs it in his Great Hall. Sometimes I sneak in and look at it, but it doesn’t really look like him anymore.”
Flower’s anger faded away and just left the shame. He’d probably seen this boy’s father’s head last night, hanging on a wall. It might have been one of the ones that… He shook his head and tried to get the image of Androkles’ head tied to the wall out of his mind. With his mouth open and dried old tongue hanging out, like…
He focused on the bath and tried not to think of anything at all. The older boy washed his way down Flower’s arms and in between his fingers. He inspected everything for cuts, but all he found were bruises. “How did you get beat up so bad?”
Flower answered quickly, glad to be talking instead of imagining. “I was supposed to dance for the King, but his guests threw stuff at me and turned it into a joke. It started out, they just threw food and stuff like that, but then they threw plates and cups and whatever they had. Someone even threw a cut-off head at me. I’m pretty sure they were seeing if they could kill me.”
From how the other boy just told him about his father without any hesitation or emotions, Flower found that he could do the same and just say, without feeling bad about it. Reliving the memory this way made him feel better, not worse, like some of the pain of it floated out of him atop the words.
“Wow,” said the older boy. “No wonder you got so dirty. I was supposed to take you out and wash you in the river, but that would freeze me too. They’ll never know. Was Smudge there when that happened?”
“Yeah,” said Flower. He looked down at the ground and felt small. Old Flower. If Androkles had no name anymore, what did that make Flower? “He didn’t do anything about it, though. Just watched.”
“I bet he couldn’t, then,” said the boy. “Is it weird if I wash your tail? Does it hurt or anything?”
“No, it’s fine,” said Flower. The older boy treated his tail more gently than necessary, but he still washed it thoroughly. Having it massaged like that energized and soothed him at the same time. “It wasn’t because he couldn’t, though. Papa could kill everyone in this whole fort if he wanted to.”
“If you say so.”
“If you say so.” Satisfied with Flower’s back and tail, he moved on to his feet and legs. He gave them the same thorough treatment and discovered more bruises than Flower had been aware of. No cuts, though.
The water pot wasn’t even half-empty yet, and there was a whole other one sitting there. The brick was warm under his toes, and the furnace dried out the splashes much faster than he expected.
“Do you ever sneak out?” asked the older boy.
“Why not? What do you do all day?”
Flower turned his head away, embarrassed. “I just sort of sit there. I can go out to make water or soil, but I don’t have shoes or a coat so I don’t stay out long. Sometimes the women teach me their dances, but that’s all.”
Satisfied with Flower’s toes, the boy started on his chest. It turned red everywhere the rag rubbed it, almost like he was being painted and not cleaned. No one else’s skin ever did that, at least not that much. What if the boy thought he was weird, and started spreading rumors? ‘Look, his skin is delicate as a flower,’ like his old family used to say to tease him. ‘Don’t touch him or it will rip,’ they’d say, and then give everyone a hug but him. Just remembering that made him hurt inside.
“So you never do anything just because you want to?” asked the boy, stopping again. Flower met his gaze and noticed how dark the boy’s eyes were. The irises were so dark they looked black, but maybe that was just from the dim light of the furnace. Still, their blackness had faint little sparkles, like little stars.
“What do you mean? Like finding someone to play with?”
“Well, that or anything. I mean that you just want to do something, so you do it. Something no one told you to do.”
“I can’t do stuff like that. They’re always watching me, and I don’t have enough clothes to even go anywhere anyway. I’d just freeze. There’s nothing I can do.”
“I bet you could if you wanted to. Hold on,” said the boy. He took a bucket of charcoal and threw about half of it into the open door of the furnace, then took a metal poker and stabbed at it a few times. Flower didn’t feel like it was cooling off at all, though. The water on his skin felt more like sweat than anything, and he was sure that some of the drops running down his back were just that.
Flower added, “They don’t feed me enough, either, so even if I could get away to go play I’d just be hungry.”
“So steal some food, then.”
“But won’t they whip you if you get caught?”
“So don’t get caught. I do it sometimes, and I never get caught.”
“I’m not good at stuff like that. Pepper is, but I’m not. I can’t even hide very well.”
“You sound like a natural slave then. Stand up real quick,” said the older boy. He finished washing Flower and had him sit back down. “You don’t have any cuts at all, so I can give back the medicine. That’s good, because I hate touching that stuff. It smells the whole rest of the day. There’s still some water left in your pot. Do you want me to just pour it down your neck?”
“Is it still warm?”
The boy struggled to lift the near-empty pot, since it was almost half as big as he was, but he got it high enough to pour out. Flower closed his eyes and enjoyed the warm water running down the back of his head, down across his shoulders and back. It felt better than anything he could remember.
After the older boy set the pot down as carefully as he could so it wouldn’t crack, he scooted the other one out of the furnace doorway. He dipped his finger in and grinned with innocent eagerness, and Flower noticed he had good teeth. “Okay, you can do me now,” said the boy. “I haven’t had a bath since Fall. I washed my face off a few times but that’s it.”
Flower had never washed anyone else before, but he got the hang of it soon after he started. The boy was as dirty as it was possible to be, however. It was hard to tell in the soft red glow from the furnace, but the older boy was absolutely filthy from head to toe. Some of it was soot from the smoke, some of it was dirt, some of it was just grime. The rag turned black before Flower was even done with his shaved head, and he had to start using a different one. Fortunately, there was a whole pile.
“You said I was a natural slave. What’s that?” Flower asked, rubbing the rag up and down the boy’s back with both hands.
“That means someone who was born to be a slave. It’s their nature. Like you, you just do whatever they tell you and nothing else. You don’t even try to get more food if you’re hungry. I’m not one, though. My father lost to the King, but I’m only a slave because I don’t have anywhere to go. Someday, I’ll run away, or maybe they’ll free me. I don’t know. But until then I’ll do what they tell me and not get in trouble, and that’s fine because I’m still free in my heart. I still do stuff because I want to, and they don’t own my whole life,” said the older boy. He kept his hands and feet almost perfectly still, which made it harder for Flower to read his body language. But from the tone of his voice, he was trying to sound like this was a completely normal thing to talk about, something that’s already been decided. He didn’t even sound like he was trying to convince Flower; more like he was trying to convince himself.
A fiery little blossom of indignation bloomed in Flower’s chest, and he scrubbed harder, like he was trying to get the skin off. “I’m not a natural slave. I’m just trapped right now but that’s not where I belong! I can sing better than anyone, and when I get to Dikaia, Papa says I’ll be famous.”
“You can sing? So what. If it was up to you, you’d be here forever. Being a slave doesn’t mean you’re not good at stuff. You can be a blacksmith or jeweler and still be a natural slave. It’s about how you think in your heart, not whether you can do things. Some people just aren’t fit to rule their own lives, so others have to do it for them. Have you even snuck out to see your Papa yet? Smudge?”
Flower found himself balling up his fists and considering hitting the older boy, but that would be stupid. This was the first person to be nice to him this whole time. There wasn’t anything vicious in the boy’s voice. Nothing malicious. He was just talking. He probably didn’t realize how much it hurt to hear stuff like that, especially after last night.
Part of Flower’s anger was fueled by shame and feeling helpless, so it took a couple deep breaths to calm down. Once he was ready, he poured a cup down the boy’s arm, and the water was muddy by the time it reached the ground. “If I do that, they said they’ll hang me upside down, naked, outside in the cold for a day. It’s easy for you to talk about not really being a slave because probably nobody cares what else you do as long as you keep the furnace going during the day. I have people watching me all the time. They put me in the most guarded place there is, and I don’t know if it’s so Papa doesn’t come in or so I don’t leave, but as soon as I sneak out, someone will know.”
The boy gave Flower a mischievous grin and spread his fingers out so he could wash in between them better. “Do you think anyone’s noticed yet that you’re missing?”
“What do you mean?”
“Nobody told me to give you a bath. I thought of it myself after seeing you last night. You looked miserable so I decided to do this. You snuck out. You’re missing.”
Flower stopped for a moment and stared at the older boy, who wasn’t lying. Flower would have seen it. “No one told you? Why did you sneak me out, then? They’re gonna beat me until I bleed!”
“No they won’t. Look, it’s not even light outside yet. They’re not even awake, except maybe some guards and we can just lie to them and say I was supposed to. You’re all clean, aren’t you?”
“But why did you?”
“Just because I wanted to. I told you that. You looked miserable, so I decided I wanted to do something for you. I told you I’m not a natural slave. I do what I want, whenever I can. I’m living my own life.”
Flower grit his teeth and tried to sort out all the mixed up feelings inside him as he went back to washing. Pour, wash, pour, wash. It took forever because the boy was filthy. Filthier than it should even be possible to be in a place that made you sweat all day. It made him angry just thinking about it. The older boy wanted a bath and found someone he could talk into giving him one, probably because he knew how much work it’d be.
But that wasn’t really it. He wasn’t mad at the other boy. He was just ashamed that the other boy was better than him. Maybe he would have made a better son for Androkles than Flower did. He felt more and more like Old Flower the more he thought about it—maybe he was a natural slave. Who ever heard of someone whose own mother didn’t love him? She must have seen the truth about him. She knew how worthless he was, and so did the rest of his old family. They treated him like he deserved.
The older boy didn’t say anything for a while. Instead, he relaxed with a content look on his face and enjoyed every minute of being washed. It really had been a long time, and he’d needed it. And maybe it was right for Flower to be doing it, to be the servant like this. He could find a place in the world, beneath everyone. Somewhere he could hide and be safe.
After the older boy was finally clean from head to toe, he stretched with a big sigh and said, “Thanks. That felt really nice. Now I won’t get my food dirty just from picking it up.”
Flower smiled back at him, but his heart wasn’t in it.
The older boy noticed and said, “You’re still thinking about being a natural slave, huh?”
Flower nodded. His ears folded down on their own.
“Well, don’t worry too much about it. If you’re not a natural slave, then you’ll just decide not to be one. It’s that easy. And if not, it’s okay. You’re still one of us.”
“What do you mean decide not to be one?” Flower asked, still not looking up.
“Do you have a nature? Do you know what it is?”
Flower looked up and found himself caught in the boy’s gaze again, startled by his black eyes with white flecks like stars. “I don’t know.”
“Then live like you don’t have any nature at all, and you have to create it as you go. If you don’t, then someone else will. That’s how you become a natural slave. Or at least, that’s what I think, anyway,” said the boy. He fidgeted for a moment like he wanted to pat Flower on the head, or grip his shoulder, or something like that. He didn’t, though. He just said, “You don’t have to be the old person forever. You get to decide.”
Flower nodded, but his calm exterior didn’t reflect the way the boy’s words shot through him like lightning, like he’d known somehow how miserable Flower was and came to say just the right things. And give him a bath, and make him feel better that way, too. Clean. Fresh.
And the boy’s words really did affect him. Maybe it was only temporary, but all the bad feelings inside him disappeared and were replaced by hope. Hope and confidence that New Flower could come back from this, if only he kept trying.
“Oh, I almost forgot. You don’t wanna go running back naked, I bet. Here’s the clothes I got for you. The head slave has a cabinet where he keeps stuff like this. If he asks, just say a slave gave it to you but you don’t know who.”
“What’s your name?” asked Flower.
“If I tell you, then you can’t say you don’t know who. Anyway, hurry back. If you lay down before they wake up, I bet they’ll never ever notice you were gone,” said the older boy. He helped Flower pull the clean wool shirt and pants over his wet body, then ushered him out the open doorway.
The sky was getting brighter, almost bright enough for the sun to rise. Morning was coming in the world, and inside himself. Flower walked quickly across the icy ground, following the rough, frozen road that led back across the fort to the house the King’s women slept in. Flower didn’t feel the cold at all—his body was still warm from sitting in the smeltery for so long. His mind felt active and bright as he thought about all the ways he could be New Flower, even in a place like this, even with everyone forced to live as slaves until Papa could get them free.
Maybe he could do something about that, too. Maybe he could sing so well the King and the Prince would give him a favor. He wasn’t powerless. He could choose. He just had to believe.
Flower spun around and raced back to the smeltery to thank the boy, but what he found surprised him so much he had to blink five times before he believed it. The big water pots were against the wall and had charcoal in them now, and the bucket they’d been sitting on was over by the furnace, full of lumps of light gray rock that looked a little bit metallic. The brick floor was completely dry with no trace of all the filth that had been scraped off Flower or the other boy.
The boy himself had vanished into thin air. Only the clean new clothes Flower had on gave any evidence it had happened at all.