LII.

Athlem recalled why she never acted upon impulses only seconds after she did: one such rash challenges rendered her here amidst the dark, wild forests where she provoked a dying campfire with a stick.

Days ago, she spoke without being prompted to, treating her life with the clinical objectivity no one expected from a new mother, “So be it.” Even Horatio could not stir her.

She had her reasons. She had just forced Lyra to stop employing the disguise after she caught her sneaking out of her room in the dead of the night for a breath from nightmares and “the voices.” Lyra already did so much, putting the Etzion King and the infinite whispers to their cowardly places; but as soon as “Emperor Luctus” quit Etzion, the general came back to with more of his devilish devices.

Twice, Jiube choked from poisons in her food — ever since her child was known to the world, the little thing became quite protective — and while toxins of the flesh were dodged, those of the mind and name were not. In some sick contortion of truths the general fabricated a tale of the night that Horatio still refused to speak to her about, but the fragment of words from nosy servants that assaulted her ears point to a version entirely opposite to the truth.

“Defiled her,” “innocent Rosamund,” They said. “Against her will,” “abusing power,” “her poor brother,” “devil in a prince’s disguise.”

Athlem broke the stick in her hand, casted into the pit of fire and proceeded to pick out the splinters she planted into her palm in the process. The fluffy owl sharing her log chair noticed her outburst, took that as a cue to scuttle away to find more sticks for her.

Horatio did not suffer in blind silence, of course, he appealed to his king brother for the removal of such a nuisance, but she judged from the way he slammed their chamber’s door that night the negotiations weren’t well, he was never prone to mistreat anything, doors included.

So, when the general came to them and issued the challenge, she took it.

“Solve the plague of the Southshores, oh great doctor,” the hellspawn taunted. “Should you succeed, I shall yield my title and let you deal with me as you please. Should you fail, the charges for witchcraft stands.”

“So be it,” She tested her unyielding defiance; Jiube was confused as to the comment pertaining to the dwarfish mountain of sticks it had accumulated by her feet or a symbolic character breakthrough.

She could only ruffle the tiny owl’s head affectionately, forgetting briefly about the demon of a general as she took another stick and probed the dancing flames and her thoughts until her beloved stuck his disheveled head out from their tent begging her for the fifth time that night to retreat from the biting cold of seasons and her meandering mind. This time she finally complied.

Unshackled by the concept of a nervous, concerned lover, Lyra had long left the circle of light casted by the humble campfire as it reminded her too much of a ruined village she and Alde strove to patch back together with care and lullabies and ladled soup. She eased herself into the harmonies of the darkness, having learned from the Nokshan how to tread lightly enough amongst nature’s congregation without interrupting the sweet hymns. These voices were better than the ones within her head, the gentle roars that increase the aches by each prolonged second she bore her father’s skin.

I am relying on him, she knew. A breath of night air did little to disperse that thought. The general was right, she had no business having knowledge or power. She stole them, just like Athlem, donned the appearance of a man so their voices would actually be heard. Now, they and those they love reaped the price of their theft, their pride, their desperation.

“But is that so wrong?” To be equal, to understand the desire to march out with civilizations, to help it march on.

The voices hinted at a different speech, she forced them to shush to a steady hum.

“So be it,” That voice from above was neither from nature nor her demons; its owner recycled a nugget of wise defiance his familiar had the privilege to witness.

“You startled me, dumb crow.”

“You are the one who randomly came by my perch and started mumbling aloud,” It was just the murmurs of the forests now, the tumults splitting her head died down.

She laughed, “Apologies, I didn’t see your nest there, dumb crow.”

“Ravens and crows are different.”

“And you are not disputing the ‘dumb’ part, then?” She dodged a chunk of bark. “Hey!”

He chuckled, stretched, “Go to sleep, Lyra, you have a campaign ahead of you.”

She sighed, perhaps one doesn’t need a lover to be fussed over, “You are right.” She muttered, her glance degenerated to a stare as she found his eyes peering down at her from his poise of perfect ease and elegance.

“Or would you rather share more of those ridiculous stories humans imprint upon the night skies?” She was tempted, but scoffed, “Then what of the whole ‘go to sleep’ ordeal? Also, it’s unlike Nokshan stories make any more sense than human ones.”

“Perhaps the essence is lost in translation,” A swoop of shadows, then he was beside her. “The stars are a lot more numerous than last time.” He was most persuasive, but her mouth contradicted herself.

“You just felt bad that you randomly quit me last time,” She shoved him aside jestingly, started picking her way back to camp. “Good night, dumb raven. Don’t fall out of your nest in your sleep.”

“As soon as you stop sleepwalking, sure,” He refuted, a little more bitter than usual. “Good night.”

She laughed to herself, found the fire but glowing embers and its keeper, the little owl, dozing. A scoff, some stirs, she fed the flames to sleep.

LI.

Lyra never understood the different merits of parting one’s hair in one way or the other, so when her third aunt preached on about the grand significance of such details the princess nodded more to sleep than in agreement. She was going to survey the throneroom with Aldebaran to prepare for her disguise when they had the misfortune of meeting her aunt at the main hallway; after a good hour of reprimanding Lyra for “wasting youthful potential,” the older woman turned to survey the Nokshan on the matter.

She took that chance to march into the throneroom, paid her respects to the King, then went on her way to number of entrances within the baroque space.

She was acknowledging the salute of a captain when one of the many doors gave way to a silhouette of composed madness, the latter quality betrayed only by the fact that the man single-handedly hauled in another by a fistful of blood-matted hair.

Horatio bowed with perfect posture, “Your Majesty, a report on a case of treason.”

Lyra knew better than to interfere when he wore such a forced smile; the captain beside her stiffened upon recognizing the mess of a man Horatio dragged in, “General Astaroth!”

The General had been tossed to the King’s feet, a groveling shadow clutching at his bloody stub of a hand.

“Oh brother, what have you done?” The King descended from his throne to help who he naively presumed to still be his brother-in-law. “What would Rosamund think?”

Lyra cringed, Horatio stiffened, a hand shot to his aching temple, “You are almost as good a jester as you are a King, brother. Now, where’s Athlem.”

“Horatio, you are under her control!”

Lyra marked the sorcerers and soldiers that poured into the throneroom. Amongst the mess, Aldebaran had escaped from the aunt and caught onto news dropped by passing maids.

Lyra, they’ve captured Athlem on charges of witchcraft.

As I thought, she slipped away, found an obscured passageway. Keep watch for me.

Already are.

She took a deep breath, muttered the deceptive spell and it engulfed her.

*******

Horatio knew the words at the tip of her tongue when the guards barged in, he read her affectionate hand at her abdomen, but he didn’t…Not now…he was going to…she is…, “Release her.”

“Horatio, come to your senses.”

“She is no witch, now release her.”

“You are under her influence — ”

“ — An attack upon an imperial officer is treason, indeed,” The cold voice echoed across the hushing hall. “My dear brother Horatio, how are you?”

The King lost his color at the new intruder, all fell to a grovel in uncanny unison, “Long Live the Emperor.”

Luctus’s eyes flitted over the bowing masses, “Horatio, what is this?”

Horatio shamed himself for having to rely on his niece, “Your Majesty, they pressed charges against your servant Athlem and planned to execute the doctor.”

“Your Majesty, I can explain — ”

“ — And were you asked to?” The King cowered, Luctus scoffed. “Bring out the doctor, please.”

Guards were dispatched, the King’s pleas now given ear, “Your Majesty, we cannot let a witch live, it’s –”

“– What made you think Athlem could be a witch?” Luctus found a convenient chair, still not bothering to let his subjects rise.

Having bounded his hand and arrogance, Astaroth dared, “My sister’s servants chanced upon the discovery of the doctor’s true sex; there were also herbs and instruments unknown to the best physicians of Etzion along with a vial of blood in the Doctor’s study, probably to curse –”

“Is your common sense where your fingers are?” Luctus cut off the presumptuous narrative. “So, just because my court doctor is a woman and is in possession of greater knowledge than your physicians, she is a witch? Intriguing.”

“She cannot be a witch,” A new voice joined the fray, the only standing figure protected from scrutiny by his midnight wings.

Lyra was briefly distracted by the flutter of movement at the door when the bounded doctor was escorted in, her neat braids undone and her cascade of grace and hair hiding her grievances.

“Aldebaran,” Lyra turned her attention back to the Nokshan. “Great of you to join us.”

He nodded, continued his point, “By your human laws and descriptions, a witch is infertile.”

Horatio bowed to the floor, Athlem glared at the General, Lyra buried her excitement under a smirk while Aldebaran finished his thought, “And that description, Doctor Denthea fails.”

The court died to quieter silence, the implications pried apart.

“Please,” The choked plea could hardly be registered as the same madman who threw the General of Etzion into the throneroom moments ago. “Just let her be.” The court was still.

Lyra snapped awake, “You fools, release the doctor this instant.”

A guard miraculously cut the ropes in a panicked fumble, and Athlem instinctively threw herself into her beloved’s awaiting arm.

“Conception outside of the union of marriage is a grave crime,” Blind rage made Rosamund foolishly brave, emerging from the wave of scandalized murmurs.

“Your Prince Horatio’s frugalness and humility thought an insignificant ceremony sufficed, and for the sake of preserving his beloved’s reputation and career kept the union secret. Is that wrong?” Lyra turned to the cursed woman, smiled to contradict the hellish fiery.

“There is no proof of it,” Rosamund screeched, Athlem’s hold upon her beloved tightened.

“I was present, woman,” Luctus rose in a clap of fury. “Do you question the authority of your Emperor?”

“No…your Majesty…I…”

Lyra chuckled, “Questioning your sovereign equivalates treason. Now, that is a grave sin, is it not, General Astaroth?”

Seeing that his sister had lost her chance, the General only nodded his agreement before bowing lower.

“Brother, how could you…” Guards shifted to seize her instead, and she puffed, bit her painted lips and was led forever out of glory.

Luctus turned to face his subjects, an innocent smile upon his flawless facade, “Now that’s all dealt with, shall we dine? I am famished.”

Aldebaran choked back a laugh.

L.

Why was she smiling? He didn’t understand why he deserved that bright smile, or even just her presence at all. He didn’t understand the soft, gentle caresses at his cheeks that wiped away sorrows he didn’t know escaped him.

For a second, he didn’t understand how to breathe.

“Horatio, love,” She whispered. “May I have…a word?”

A word? He would give her any star in the universe if she liked, of course he nodded.

She took his hand, led him to the privacy of her meager chambers that served as a painful reminder of his powerlessness: he couldn’t even provide her with what she deserved merely for the maintenance of his prestige and the thin thread he tread upon with his family.

What good did that do him, anyway?

As she shut the door he scoffed at himself inwardly, collapsed into the nearest chair and the void of his mind. When he saw through his fingers raking through his disheveled thoughts and hair the familiar pair of sandals immediately before him, he scrambled out of his seat and words bubbled forth in disarray.

“No,” She shushed him, and he was afraid again; then her hands found their rightful places cupping his cheeks. “I understand.”

“Ath…”

She pulled him into an embrace, an ear pressed against the thrums of his heart, “I am sorry that I even doubted you at all.”

He attempted to convince himself that the silken locks at the tip of his fingers were not a figment of his imagination, that her delicate frame molding into him in her doting embrace was not an illusion he somehow casted in his foolish despair.

“I thought you…” If she believed him, who was he to not believe in her forgiveness? He coaxed his eyes shut, rested his chin upon her head and for the what felt like a first in a century, dared to breathe again.

Instead of choking perfumes or smog of propriety, herbs and salts and flowers tainted with tears came up to meet him. What did he do in his previous life to deserve her, he desired nothing but to remain like this forever.

But eventually, she pulled away, her hands clasped about his as she begun, “Horatio, I need to tell you, I am with — ”

At that the doors burst open as though the force behind it was eavesdropping the entire time, a slew of guards and soldiers and sorcerers poured forth to choke the breath out of the small room.

Behind them, the cold voice of the General commanded, “Arrest the witch.”

Horatio pulled the accused behind him, eyes narrowed in dangerous defiance, “Astaroth, what is the meaning of this?”

“There are considerable evidence that the wench hiding behind you is a witch,” The General said flatly. “Now, do not oppose the King’s orders and yield, Your Highness.”

“My brother issued the capture?” Horatio’s mind raced at the possibilities of how Athlem’s disguise was compromised and who would be vile enough to lay such false accusations though he already knew the answer. “If I do recall, my authority as Emperor Luctus’s Commander place me only beneath his Majesty and Grand Priest Claud. What does the words of the King of a tribute nation have upon me?”

“Your Highness is absolutely correct, though imagine what rebellious spirits the news of the Lunzeldine Commander misusing his powers to shield a witch for more than a decade would instill upon the good people of the Empire.”

He could only glare in return, for the General was right. What is his “authority” in the face of a culture taught to loathe and fear women superior to men, labeling intelligence and studies as “witchcraft”?

In his distraction, he missed the subtle jerk of the General’s hand: the soldiers moved forth. The closest, poor bastard of a guard didn’t even see the strike that sent him sprawling upon the floor, his sword stolen from the sheath. All swords in the room left their scabbards in one treacherous breath to trap the couple in a circle of deathly edges while Horatio’s measuring glare skidded from one dull mind behind each blade to another.

The General sneered, “That is an unwise decision, Your Highness.”

They were surrounded, but somehow the idea of beating some sense into these insubordinate, greedy bastards was calming to Horatio as he studied the rubbish sword he just confiscated. He felt Athlem shift behind him, grasped a sleeve.

“I will go with them, it’s fine,” Her whisper was as expected as his refusal of such an insane notion.

She took a few steps forward, putting herself just far enough from her protector to tempt the General himself to grasp at her, though the outstretched fingers were met by a clean, downward cut. Astaroth crumbled to the floor with an inhuman howl, writhed while his men closed around him and the offender. Horatio raised a haughty chin to accommodate the menacing blades now pressed against his throat. The severed digits rolled away and Athlem would have retched again had she not been too concerned by her beloved’s predicament.

Seeing no easier alternative, her voice surprised herself, “I will go with you.”

“Athlem, no,” Horatio dared a step, and a sword broke a bead of scarlet just below the hill of his throat; for too many times in the past hours he had felt so hopelessly powerless, and he stretched a discreet hand to conjure a deathly illusion despite the metal digging into his skin.

Led by two guards to be ripped from his sight, Athelm turned just in time for a final utterance, “You will prove it, won’t you?” She smiled, the escorts forced her along, swept out of the doors and to the cold cells beneath.

And just like that, the only light in the dark room of his captivity vanished, swept off by false claims to be executed. And he? He was nearly strong enough to not hide weakness with brute force and wrath and bloodshed.

Nearly.

Fireworks

He didn’t use to like it, the forceful explosions of colorful flames were but yet another science phenomenon coinciding with human standards of beauty. What’s so exciting about polluting the world with smog and noise and litters of food wrappers and cans and frightened pets running astray?

But, this year is different.

As he found himself perched upon a blanket too colorful for his usual palette surrounded by a crowd too plentiful for his preference, he didn’t notice the two extremities, but a third: the head resting at his shoulder was too heavy, too casual, too smitten. And when he protested, the lazy voice merely pointed out that no one would see much in the dark before resuming the light nap as they continued to wait for the spectacle.

“We could’ve seen the fireworks perfectly fine from the window,” He wasn’t letting this go, the purpose of pointlessly subjecting themselves to the torment of impending traffic was beyond lost to him.

“But, you hardly go out besides for work,” A purr, a smile; he could not help but smile, too, despite his irritations. “The festive air is a nice change of pace.”

He wanted to point out the third red baseball hat he read today and his dislike for jingoes, but thought better and allowed himself to indulge in the weight that has now invaded a good half of him, found its usual place in his arm, “What’s the point of bringing cushions if you are just going to sit on me, anyway?”

The pretense of innocence that pouted at him made him chuckle, “I just thought you would feel less left out if I brought my cushion, too.”

As though attuned to a natural pause of their conversation, an announcement shushed then riled up the crowd, dimming the stadium lights as cheap speakers paid their patriotic dues in sacrificing their short lifespans in blasting one ‘Murica songs to another at a volume not meant to be so. Soon enough, the ink black skies above them erupted into blinding hues, and as the masses around them “ooh”ed and “ahh”ed he already picked out a set pattern and wished that there were more colors than flashes of blue, white, red, green or a rare treat of purple.

“I am bored,” Hair tickled his neck, someone had decided to lean back and deliver this shared message.

“It’s been less than five minutes,” He was merely being informative.

“Oh,” The pang of disappointment was too obvious despite a denial for an offer to go home. “We’ve waited for so long.”

So they watched, traced the thin lines of sparks before each dull bloom of sounds and fury and colors. The culmination was but a combination of the fireworks released in the past twenty minutes.

“They could’ve done that in the beginning,” A bubble of laughter at the babbling sky in its maelstrom of smog and dying sparks; he agree, all was too messy, too loud for his taste.

But still, despite his habitual cynicism the only extremity that he cared for was that his arm rested too naturally around that waist, and the lips curled by a smile more splendid than any exploding skies that came up to greet his was too perfect.

XLIX.

She found herself at the insufficient dining table again, this time even more dreadful as unpleasant company far outnumbered the pleasant ones with the King and his general alongside several foolish aunts. And, as per tradition, the inhabitants of the table interrogated, now with her being the latest subject.

“Pardon me for my bluntness, Princess, but what exactly is the state of the Capital?” The King was done with monologues of forged gratitude for the Emperor’s daughter gracing them with her presence. “There are so many rumors, even I cannot say for certain what is going on.” His sisters muttered in giggled unison.

She wasn’t sure what was funny, started to explain, “Of course, the rebels –”

“ — Your Majesty cannot possibly expect the Princess to be knowledgeable of the state of affairs!” The General’s interruption earned him a deathly glare from Lyra though she was still ignored.

She muttered loud enough in a bitter fit after some thought, “Lord Astaroth is right, who am I to speak of such matters? Your Majesty may ask my father directly soon enough.”

Time froze, then at a gradual thaw the King chose his words, “Do you mean that your father meant to visit in the near future?”

She offered her most innocent smile, “Why yes, Father thought that if he didn’t warn you in advance he would spare you the bother of taking excessive measures of greeting him. He ought to be here this afternoon.”

Was this a test of loyalty all along? The King wiped away a cold sweat as he contemplated his unpreparedness and the Emperor’s reputation of cruel eccentricity. Disgusted that the mere mention of her father’s presence could command an amount of respect she would never earn from these man, Lyra excused herself from breakfast and the panicking royalties now rushing for last-minute preparations. She cursed her inevitable need to rely on that demon’s authority as the infinite voices threatened to swallow her whole.

She stormed down the corridor, made too many sharp turns in her blinding rage to avoid crashing into one equally distressed; she stumbled, he helped her up, “Horatio? Where were you earlier this morning? I had to suffer through — ” When she met his eyes, all complaints about insufferable relatives got lost in the oceans of empty despair that replaced the usual sparkles of determination, “Uncle, what’s wrong?”

He was so pale, his eyes flitted away from hers to settle on something more distant before he cleared his throat and forced a smile, “A…sleepless night. Have you…seen yo-your aunt?”

He stuttered, never in her life did she hear him stutter and she was in shock, “Are you certain that nothing is wrong?”

The silence was tortuous, but not as agonizing as the moment he finally tore his gaze away from gravity and spared a glance at her: a glimmer of infinite vulnerabilities was darkened by irrational fear as he briefly rubbed his eyes, “I am…so tired, Lyra, but…I will be fine. Have you seen your aunt anywhere?” She noted with terror the slight swelling of his eyes, struggled to identify that look and what could possibly make his iron resolve crumble in such a fashion.

“No, I haven’t…”

Lyra! She jolted.

What now, Alde?

Are you with your uncle?

How did you know? It’s unlike you read my mind or something, The fact that Alde did not chuckle at her sarcasm was doubly concerning. What’s wrong?

Athlem and I will meet you at the South Hall, and I will explain once we are there.

Alright, She turned to her uncle, found him regarding her with puzzlement so she explained, “Aldebaran just told me that he’s with Athlem and they intend to meet us at the South Hall.”

Horatio drew a painful breath, “So the Nokshan knows?”

Lyra knew he didn’t mean the whereabouts of her aunt, “I don’t know what the two of you meant to conceal, presumably the source of your current misery. It pains me to add to your sorrows, so I won’t ask anything any longer. But come, let’s go find Athlem.”

Horatio allowed himself to be led to the South Hall by the voice with the timbre of his older sister’s caring remonstrance, while Lyra attempted to brush aside the fear of something that rendered her uncle so. Then, as they made their way down a baroque corridor she recalled that look from her uncle’s face, the concoction of fear and pain and irrational guilt branded: she was but a child then, blissfully unaware as she ambushed Athlem at a corridor not unlike this one when the physician shoved her away. Feral fear, confusion, then slow remembrances of who she was and who Lyra was: by the time Athlem began to apologize, Lyra ran away, shocked. She later gathered enough information from the horrid whispers, failed to understand as a child, but now…

The banners and columns yielded to the spacious opening of their destination. Aldebaran and Athlem were already waiting for them. Lyra saw that Horatio had suddenly became extremely interested in the patterns of the rug while Aldebaran muttered an excuse for both him and Lyra to slip away. From the corner of the hall, she observed Athlem approaching her beloved, taking his earth-bound gaze and hand, exchanged a word or two before leading him away.

Her question awaited no longer, “So, what happened?”

Aldebaran began, carefully retelling Rosamund’s demonic deed, “The woman sank to quite unspeakable means for her selfish goal” was the understated conclusion.

Lyra paled, colored, and for a second, a look of murder made her an uncanny copy of her father, “That whore, I will make her regret the day she was conceived…”

“That wouldn’t exactly help your uncle or anyone.”

“I suppose…” He was right, but how could I help them? Lyra sought her calm, found none.

Then amongst the storm, amongst the despair clouding her mind, an idea came to fruition. She allowed it to manifest, to climb over the horizons.

XLVIII.

Life is a nightmare. An ugly one, and there was no end to it.Well, if one is brave enough to cross the threshold of the unknown, employ the instruments of self-destruction…

But no, not her. Her life was no longer her own…anyhow, when had the trek from one wing of the palace to the other always been so long? Her head was too light, and she felt the familiar crept of bile that had been loyally ruining her mornings for the past week. She still couldn’t breath, unwilling to accept anything, including air.

Miraculously she tumbled into her room in time to vomit the gruel that she could stomach from dinner in all its entirety into the nearest empty cauldron. She was exhausted. Still, she had to work. Washing out the acid burning her throat and throwing open all the windows — an act acceptable now that she was no longer next to the stables — she threw herself at her dressing-table-converted work station lined with instruments and herb and began to think: poisons, paralyzers. She marked the texture of the blood, tried to forget its owner, recorded its color, its properties. She realized she needed a certain seedling for her test…perhaps it could be replaced with…no. Nothing reacted. Normal red, why? She could use the crystallized form of…having something similar…having something…she thought she did. She thought she had Horatio.

No, she didn’t.

She was dizzy again, though she forced herself to continue. Where was she? Yes, to replace the seedling, and…still nothing, still she thought she meant something. No, no time for that, only time for truth and grounded facts. Proof, for his innocence…perhaps she could heat up the mixture, excite the molecules to exhibit a change, or —

A mindless hand knocked over a stray empty vial, she cursed, reached out to catch it but only succeeded in burning herself as her distressed mind rendered her as dangerously disorganized as her mentor.

The vial crashed against the marble floors, shattered. The impact toppled the last column that held up her mind. It was over, she fell to her knees, too indignant to pray, too hurt to make a noise even when her hand cut itself against the scattered shards.

Why? What did she do wrong?

She was wrong to think that she was excluded from his ambition: the position of second prince must have been irresistible now that the Emperor was not there to back him, and a woman as beautiful and powerful as Rosamund? God, she could almost be happy for him, she would convince herself to be; but he looked so broken, so torn.

Did she wrong him?

He wronged her. She curled her hand into a fist, embraced the searing pain of the infinite cuts in her palm and the bright red oozing through her fingers, a wayward droplet painted the white floor scarlet and she watched the beautiful tendrils bloom into a withered flower. She watched the rays of sunshine crash and bounce from the massacre of glass through the blur of her tears, saw the infinite rays of rainbows broken into pieces like the promises so often whispered against her stubborn ear.

“What if…he was telling the truth,” She reasoned aloud, then the instruments of her knowledge would be reduced to symbols of distrust, both of him and her own worth.

Does that mean…he was…

A gentle rapping cleared the darkening air. She looked up, saw the shadow at the window and summoned her best smile when she opened and greeted her visitor, “Are doors a strictly human concept?”

“Apologies, it’s a matter of urgency,” The Nokshan landed gracefully, his eyes fell upon the mess upon the floor and her bleeding hand.

“I was experimenting when I accidentally knocked things over,” She bounded her hands, sniffed the air, remembered the herb that was now burning at the bottom of the ceramic dish, rushed to extinguish the flame. “God…why are you here, Aldebaran.”

“A word of what happened last night.” 

She froze, knew that he knew but attacked instead, “What did you do to Lyra?” She folded her arms in feigned remonstrance to hide her shaking.

It took him an entire minute to understand and blush and stammer, “What..no, we…were just watching stars…I…that’s not what…”

God, this child was so adorable, she almost smiled.

Aldebaran cleared his throat and mind, “I came here because I heard a voice during my conversation with Lyra, a voice begging for death.”

“I am not sure if I can diagnosing mental ailments of Nokshans,” She strode over to another window. What if…Horatio was…no, he cheated. He had to.

“Hearing voices is the normal part, Athlem, I am constantly hearing the spirits around me,” Athlem took back what she said about son-in-law; Lyra deserved someone normal for once. “The owner of that voice is what I am here for.”

“Who?”

“It was Horatio.”

Of course.

She knew it. She only wanted to test his blood and pretend that she was the one to be hurt, that she was simply betrayed and that was all and he wasn’t…he didn’t have to experience what she suffered, to be rendered so powerless, felt so dirtied.

But…in her denial she left him alone.

She choked on her breath, her selfishness, her unwillingness to trust, to understand…who was she to strand him on his own with his demon, with her… “I have to find him, I must tell him…” that I am sorry, sorry to have even questioned him, to have left him alone.

Aldebaran glanced at the cauldron at the corner of the room, back to linger a little upon her stomach, thought about speaking but thought otherwise.

“Do you know where he is?” She gathered herself together, the Nokshan nodded. “Take me to him.”

The Nokshan smiled, glad that he had stopped a spirit in its downward spiral before it was too late, “Alright.”

XLVII.

The blinding rays of sunlight from the windows did not help the drums in his skull. Then an observation, alarm: his chamber did not have such a span of windows. Nor were the curtains pink.

A part of him already knew where he was and the excruciating memories spilled forth from that spot. He gasped, sat up too suddenly. Dread, shame, a search for his tunic, trembling.

“You are finally awake,” The demoness poised before her dressing table, spoke into the mirror at his reflection as she brought her hair in all arrangements of ugly.

“You,” His voice was but a pathetic croak. “How could you…do such a thing to anyone?”

“Dearest,” She finally decided upon a side for her mane, and Horatio only wanted to rip each strand from its roots as insufficient revenge. “I am sorry for your discomfort, I’ve already sent for a doctor. But, I would not had to do this had you been –” She drew out the word to leave space for him to remember every agonizing detail, “– willing.”

His legs refused to budge. “Monster.”

You are the monster, Horatio,” She hissed, turning from the mirror to face him. “You left me.”

He was unwilling to admit the way his hand trembled in fear as she approached him; powerless, his mind drifted inevitably to her, and his heart stopped.

God no, nono, nonono.

Rosamond read his horror as she smiled, “Soon enough even your beloved would know that you are the monster.”

“Athlem would believe me,” His mind stated firm faith aloud, though another voice questioned: why should she? I am defiled, willingly or not I’ve shared a bed with another. Just saying her name was blasphemous. He was unworthy of it.

Of her.

At that a gentle rapping made Horatio curse his unmoving body more as Rosamond explained, “It’s probably just the doctor.”

Good, he thought, it is much easier to dispose of a hired servant. Then it dawned upon him, “No you can’t, you will kill me.”

“Don’t be silly, my dear,” Rosamond teased with forged innocence with a hand on the handle, “It’s just the doctor.”

There was no escape. His underestimation of Rosamond’s insanity ruined him. The handle turned, mahogany yielded, and he was frozen as his life fell apart the moment the visitor stepped into the room, drowning.

Her hair was plaited beneath her usual cap saved for the strands left out to give an illusion of a cropped look: she insisted to keep it long despite the trouble since they both loved it when he ran his hand through it. She drowned herself in the blue tunic she stole from him when they were much younger, loose enough to render her frame masculine. These things seemed like a Saint’s relic, buried him alive.

Athlem bowed to the noble woman with cold civility. Then the sun and moon of his sky fell upon him: he had no choice but to watch the odd-colored depths widen and water. She drew a sharp breath. Shock, confusion, denial.

Betrayal.

She was the one to tear her eyes down over the crumpled sheets and floor of discarded clothes, remembered to gasp for breath.

Rosamond watched the wordless exchanged with pretended obliviousness, “Apologies to bother you, Doctor Denthea, but I was wondering if you could examine my lip,” In a desperate search of distraction, Athlem crossed the room and turned her back to him as she saw to the small cut on the woman’s lower lip. “I told you to be gentle, Horatio,” the noble purred.

He couldn’t hear Rosamond, his ears rung. Athlem was deathly quiet, turning to her case of medicine as she took a glass of water sprinkled with a fine crystal for the lady, “Flush with this.”

“What is this?”

“Salt to disinfect your injury. Is that all you called me here for?” To add salt to my injury? He heard the unspoken line and it stung.

“Athlem,” His tongue finally decided to work; Rosamond grinned and left for the bath with the salt water. “Please, I –” Her shoulders tensed at his voice, so broken, so eager for understanding; words caught again when she turned to face him, her eyes nailed to the floor to measure the distance between them.

What could he say to redeem himself? The truth, but he refused to relive the nightmare.

“Does Your Highness feel ill? Pray tell,” Athlem muttered to the rug.

“Athlem…” And he thought he was in pain before.

“Pray. tell.” She gnashed her teeth.

Then he saw the line of silver drawing its track down her cheek. What can he do? The truth, she had to hear it from him.

“I was…drugged, Athlem, I was leaving the meeting when she stabbed me with something in the neck and I…” He still couldn’t bring himself to retell it, everything ached.

Athlem made her way to him, tilted his chin and sharply turned it from one side then the other to examine his neck to corroborate with his story, “What did you feel?”

Shame, humiliation, fear? “Numbness…and I couldn’t move.”

“Approximately what hour was it when you were ‘drugged’ as you said?”

“I…don’t remember…there were multiple…ministrations,” He flinched away, disgust crept up his throat.

A thought passed by her eyes, but she drew from her bag a small dagger instead.

“Ath?” She unsheathed it, grabbed his arm; he winced at her forceful contact, “I can’t…tell you the full truth. It’s too…” filthy.

She drew a thin line across his wrist with the blade, collected the few droplets that surfaced in a vile before bandaging the insignificant  cut, “Some vixen they throw in your way, huh?”

“Athlem –”

She took her bag, bid, “Good day to you, Your Highness,” before slamming the door, disappeared.

“Good day indeed,” Horatio would’ve strangled Rosamond for her retort had he not been deaf, his bandaged hand grasped at thin air as he drowned in his own filth and the end of his world.