Androkles sat in his customary place against the wall in the King’s great hall, the only bare-chested man in the room. The King had an entirely new set of guests, as far as Androkles could tell, although they were hard to tell apart. Every now and then one might stand out in his memory for having unusually bad teeth or a fat face, but most of them had the same flat, pale brown hair, thin faces, leathers, furs, and jewelry. Always the jewelry, as though a man with any self-respect would been seen wearing it in public. Barbarians.
The King kept inviting more and more of them for his grand feasts, so they must be local notables. Nearby farmers with three cows instead of one, no doubt. Or men with enough sons that someone should bother learning his name, since there were so many of his brood running around.
And as always, those who’d never seen him before stopped mid-stride to gawk, often before they even found a place to sit. Some brought women or servants, and the whole group would stare and make quiet jokes from just inside the doorway. Most of the time he couldn’t hear them, but the jokes he did hear were repetitive; a dozen men had the same idea and thought they were clever. At least the fires and rowdy guests kept the winter’s chill out of the Great Hall. It was about the only warmth Androkles got, these days.
Arthfael probably had the King display him like this to humiliate and embarrass him, but the real effect it had on him was mild annoyance. It was clear these barbarians had so little concept of proper culture that they didn’t even know where to start properly making fun of him. They’d have done better to make jokes about why he was only half naked, or worse yet, ignore him completely. Instead they gawked and made jokes to impress each other, quietly so he couldn’t hear. It took real effort to keep from sneering down at them in derision.
And he’d better behave himself, because Arthfael had promised him another sight of his son tonight. It had been ten days since the last time, which had gone so poorly for the boy. The Prince had threatened to make Flower watch Androkles have sex with his wives, but nothing came of that. Doubtless the man realized that putting Androkles, the son he wanted to save, and the man he wanted to kill in the same room at the same time would not turn out well for the man he wanted to kill.
Ten days, and not a whisper about his son’s condition. Poor little Flower had taken some sickening hits on the skull, a couple of them hard enough they might have set stars dancing in his eyes. All Androkles could do was believe the boy was fine or close enough to it, because otherwise Arthfael would have taunted him with it by now. Still, Flower was just a child, and children were fragile.
After the room had filled with the King’s guests, totaling roughly fifty men and that many more women or servants, Arthfael finished making his rounds of greeting among them and took up his customary place at the feet of the King, who sat regal and collected as ever. The Prince clapped and called for the food and drink to be brought.
The crowd erupted into cheers as slaves paraded into the room bearing rich fare, taxed from all across the impoverished countryside in winter. The King’s continual wonton feasting used to impress Androkles, during those first few weeks. He’d thought it an effective show of wealth and power. Then it repeated every few days for months, and now it nettled him severely.
It wouldn’t have bothered him so much if the barbarians weren’t so utterly destitute as a people. They had no great temples or grand public works and no great Cities to put them in. Sure, they had roads, but none paved. They had gold and fine weapons and cloth, but nothing grand. Nothing lasting. No real civilization. Seeing the King wearing all that jewelry made him think of a small girl getting into her mother’s makeup. These Allobrogian nobles were a child’s mockery of aristocracy—clearly, they felt no duty to the people beneath them. Androkles couldn’t help but think of some wretched little family starving to death in a hovel because the King needed to eat their last sickly sheep in front of his adorers. Displays of great wealth brought honor, but only if the wealth was honorably gotten in the first place. In the Glories, wealth was measured by how much one donated to the City, not by how much one took from it for his own table. If the King kept his own flocks, Androkles had yet to hear of it.
Androkles waited impatiently for the entertainment to begin while the King’s guests gave their efforts to feasting. He watched them with disgust and condescension as they gorged themselves with ravenous ferocity. The idea that the King was probably winning their loyalty by giving them their only good meal for the year only made it more revolting.
The impatience to see his son was almost more than he could bear. Every shout for more wine or meat infuriated him, but there was nothing he could do but sit and wait. Finally, after far too long, Arthfael rose and stood in the open area before the King and waved for quiet. Once the crowd complied, he said, “Treasured guests of the King, we have a special treat for you tonight.”
Arthfael kept dramatically quiet for a moment, making everyone wonder what it was. Androkles found himself sitting forward in his seat from nervous anticipation.
The Prince continued, “We have just received word of Skythander traders arriving at the King’s gates only moments ago. The King has chosen to welcome them into his hall, feed them, and hear their petition publicly. Let them be welcomed in.”
That was not what Androkles expected, nor anyone else. Traders, this time of year? Who traded in winter? What kind of fool would risk travelling around… other than himself, of course, and look where that got him. The crowd buzzed in quiet chatter, many of them expressing the same thoughts he had. As curious as he was, however, he’d still rather just see Flower.
Five figures in thick travel clothing with hoods entered the room. Two of them carried durable linen sacks on their backs, held by straps on each shoulder. Judging by the bulges in the cloth, those bags were both filled with coin. Even if it were silver, it would be a tremendous amount of money. And if it was gold?
The crowd fell utterly silent and many of them gaped openly. Who would dare carry such a sum in strange lands without a larger bodyguard? The mystery gripped Androkles as much as it did everyone else, his curiosity nearly banishing his anxiousness to see his son. He noticed that four of them were Skythanders, but the fifth one had no tail.
Arthfael led them to sit in a place of honor near the King, then sat down across from them. In a voice both emphatic and emotionless, he said, “Food and wine for our guests! The King commands it!”
Slaves rushed in carrying what Androkles suspected would have been the meat for the final round of feasting and knelt to place the heavy silver serving-plates in front of the guests. The Skythanders placed their packs in their laps and removed their hoods to a murmur from the crowd.
All were male, he saw; it had been hard to tell through all that clothing. The thin, soft fur that covered most of their faces was disheveled and unkempt from wearing their tight hoods too long, and they rubbed their pointed cat-ears with looks of great relief on their faces. Flower and Pepper refused to wear hoods because it made their ears sore, and Androkles had to wonder why they didn’t just make hoods with little ear-tents.
When the travelers removed their coats, Androkles almost jumped up from his seat in surprise—he recognized the decorative edging on their shirts. That was a traditional Dikaian pattern, dating back to frescoes on sacred temple artifacts from the age of heroes. With the founding of the republican polity and the unification of the Glories, it had become popular in lands far and wide, but still, seeing something that looked like home was more than enough to get his attention in this wretched country.
The final traveler removed his hood, having waited until the others were settled in for some reason Androkles couldn’t guess, and the man turned out to be a Laophilean. He was young, perhaps in his early twenties. His olive complexion and short, curly black hair gave him away almost immediately. He sported a beard but kept it trimmed short, and when he removed his coat, he wore Dikaian colors like the others. The young man looked almost familiar, but Androkles couldn’t place him.
Androkles stared openly at them. Could this be why the god wanted him to wait? Were these men here to buy him? There was little doubt they were from his own City. They must be. And all that money? Here?
The newcomers ate with the enthusiasm of long, hard travel, and the servants refilled their plates more than once with dripping meat and root vegetables. The Skythanders drank the wine, but the Laophilean didn’t, which Androkles guessed was because it wasn’t mixed.
When the King saw that his guests were settled in, he called out, “My son, bring us out some entertainment. Let there be music and dancing for our guests!” King Lugubelenus had a glint in his eyes that Androkles was certain was greed; a good noble hid much behind his dignity, but no one could hide everything.
Arthfael clapped for the head slave, then whispered in his ear. The man hurried out and returned shortly after, followed by four women dressed in skirts, fine jewelry, and not much else. Androkles peered around to find Flower, but the boy was still nowhere to be seen. The strangeness of peering past half-naked, beautiful young women in search of a little boy did not escape him, but by the gods, he wanted to see Flower. He needed to see his son.
The musicians trilled their flutes and the music began. The women danced with sultry grace, eyes focused primarily on the King, but glancing professionally to other important figures around the room, sometimes winking at them. Androkles’ loins awoke like everyone else present, and he wished for the nineteenth time he’d made a different decision regarding Arthfael’s wives that day.
With the food, the entertainment, and the heat of the room, the King’s newest guests looked like they’d been pulled from sea wreckage in a storm and given hot wine and a chair. Their faces took color and grew lively and energetic as they commented quietly to each other, no doubt staking claims to what they hoped would turn out to be prostitutes.
The women danced twice, then were escorted out lest they provide too much of a distraction. Seeing that the new guests had not yet finished eating, the King had the musicians continue playing while the remaining guests chatted amongst themselves.
Once the newcomers had slowed their inhalation of whatever food was placed before them, the King wryly asked, “What do you think of my collection of heads?”
The Skythanders clamped their jaws shut and turned their reflective yellow eyes to the Laophilean, making it clear who the diplomat was. The man peered around the room as if considering the dozens of severed heads individually. He took long enough at it that Androkles had time to wonder how often they had to reapply the cedar oil to keep down the rot. The man finally said, “The King has been quite successful in battle. His reputation appears well-deserved. This place is strong with their power.”
The King smiled and said, “Many of those heads were taken by my own hand. Many of the rest were taken by the hand of my heir, Arthfael, who gave them to me as gifts for my Great Hall. He is a strong, wise man who does me great honor. My heir is worthy. My house is wealthy. My fame is wide, my power is great. My lands are many. Would you like to see my giant slave?”
After the diplomat politely nodded, the King motioned to Arthfael. At his cue, the Prince said, “Smudge, come present yourself before the King’s guests so they can look at you.”
Shame began to seep in around the edges of Androkles’ heart as he stood to obey. Acting a slave for barbarians was one thing, but in front of one of his own people he felt the wrong kind of naked. He inhaled deeply to quiet his emotions, then made his way through the Allobrogians to stand before their King.
The Laophilean exclaimed, “No! That can’t be! Androkles? The last Agapatheid? Here, a slave?” He tilted back his head and roared with laughter. He laughed so hard he could scarcely breathe, and everyone else in the room grew uncomfortable at the undignified display.
So the man knew him, then. A son of his own City, here, mocking him in front of his enemies. Androkles stood straight, eyes on the ground in front of him. He felt his face redden with shame and anger, which grew in him until he could almost no longer stand it. Right as he was about to piss on the Prince’s orders and storm out of the room, he remembered Flower. He had to see if the boy was alright. The god had told him to wait; he could hold out just a bit longer. Their blood would simply be that much sweeter when it was finally spilt.
His countryman said, “Can you make him do tricks?” The viciousness and spite in the man’s voice could simply not be explained. Androkles had injured or offended no one back home, not to such a degree. Perhaps the man was from one of the rebel Cities Androkles had razed, like Samothripetus?
The King smirked and said, “Perhaps we shall find out. Do you like my prize? He is quite a beauty, isn’t he? I have no idea how he maintains that muscle. We hardly feed him. Tell me, how do you know him?”
The man loudly smacked his lips on another morsel of food, swallowed with a slight gulp, and said, “His house has been enemies of my own for generations. Our house destroyed his, slowly and carefully. The last we heard of him, he left our lands to seek his wife because he thought she ran off with his money. We pictured him frozen to death on some mountainside or stabbed in the back after cheating the wrong gambler. This is better than we could have hoped. My father will delight for a month to hear of it, O King. Will the King tell us how he tamed him?”
Androkles’ thoughts swirled in confusion as pieces of ideas jumbled against each other, trying to fall into place. An enemy of his house? Thought his wife took his money? Tame him? King and his party be taken by crows. He let just a hint of his killing intent leak out, just a touch. The mood in the room noticeably darkened as the crowd grew quieter. He released it in the slightest amount he could manage, but kept it going. After a few heartbeats, he looked up to glare viciously at his fellow citizen. The man blanched and unconsciously leaned back to avoid the gaze.
Arthfael interrupted, voice cool and flat as ever, “You will see how he was tamed once the business is concluded, as a prize to celebrate the King’s business. I can show his motivation, in whole or in parts.”
Androkles glanced over at the Prince, who met his eyes with an expression blank as stone. With great difficulty, he swallowed his killing intent and gazed once more at the ground. Arthfael had been quite clear, and he wanted to see his whole son tonight, not parts. Not just the head rolling across the floor.
The Laophilean murmured his approval with a quiet, appreciative voice. “By the Oathfather and every god of his court, I can’t believe my eyes.” Then, louder, he added, “The Great King could have done nothing to impress me more. This man is something of a living hero all across the Glories, and yet the King has cowed him. The Dikaians would never believe me, not that I will tell them. Truly, his cunning and wisdom exceeds even his reputation, if he saw so far as to anticipate this.”
The King sounded pleased as he said, “Smudge has not caused us much trouble, once my son Arthfael got him nice and compliant. He is not the first great man I took as a slave, nor will he be the last. Arthfael, have the slave go sit back down. Perhaps we’ll bring him out again later. I want to hear what my guests have brought me to bargain, and what they want.”