The conditions of the army were not nearly as horrible as Luctus had envisioned: yes, many were wounded while others muddied from burying their dead, but the grimes of war and worries had long been cleaned, polished to allow the prevalence of determination and, once the Emperor was out of sight, disdain for Luctus’s belated presence. He pretended oblivion to the glares beneath low bows as he arrived upon his destination at the commander’s tent accompanied by his squadron of guards.
A general stood at the mouth of the tent to meet him, explaining with firm humility that he was given instruction to not allow anyone enter for the sake of the Commander’s health.
Luctus arched an eyebrow at the idea that he should not be exempted from the prohibition, “Then, may I ask whose instructions are these that should bar me from seeing my own brother?”
“The Grand Priestess, Your Excellency.”
Ah, so she arrived before him. Luctus clicked his tongue, more weary of the mask of brotherly affection than the days of commute from the capital to the edge of the empire, “Must I take leave without a more certain promise of his health?”
“…Your humble servant dare not defy the Priestess’s orders, Your Excellency.”
Luctus scoffed, “Then, are you inclined to defy mine?”
The conflict of loyalty with fear was delightful to watch; it was reminiscent of the way splattered blots of ink reached out in microscopic tendrils to taint the silken papers until plain brown became a dark, sloppy mess. The general did not resembled a mess, however, though Luctus noted the bead of cold sweat upon the general’s brow before a gauntleted hand wiped it away.
“No, absolutely not, Your Excellency,” He gestured for forgiveness before adding. “If Your Excellency deem him worthy, your lowly servant can take word.”
Luctus scoffed, “Fine. Merely inform of my presence, then.”
The general entered the tent, giving Luctus just enough time to give up on scrutinizing his muddied robe as the former returned meaning for the Emperor to enter. Luctus was first struck by a solid wall of herbal scents then by the modesty of the set up: a desk that screamed simplicity but not poverty covered in strategies, a lantern, two small chests set against a plain divider behind which the Commander rested.
Propped up by a few cushions and a propensity to hide pain and disdain with formality, Lucem appeared before his older brother on his bedding, seemingly unchanged since their last meeting saved for a much clearer shadow in the angles of his features. He made a clear attempt to get up and bow, but Luctus excused the effort with a slight wave of the hand. In a far corner of the tent obscured by an enclosure of canvas, the dull scraping of stone pestle against mortar accompanied by occasional rustle of movement announced the Grand Priestess’s occupation. Curious, that the general seemed to have only conferred with his Commander, Luctus contemplated as he seated himself upon a convenient stool. Or perhaps she was resolved to avoid him.
“Your useless servant had unnecessarily troubled and failed Your Excellency,” Lucem began. “If…”
“Oh Lucem,” Luctus interrupted the apologetic outburst. “I am merely glad to see that you are recovering so well: the thought of losing another brother is simply…unbearable.”
Before Lucem could offer any inquiry disguised as brotherly consolation, a crash of porcelain against the hard earth intruded along with a string of muttered apologies from Morgain, who hurried to pick up the pieces left of a bowl of medicine.
“It’s fine, Mor, don’t cut your fingers, now…” Despite Lucem’s chiding, the Priestess already wrapped up the broken pieces in a handkerchief.
After disposing the small package in what Luctus presumed to be her own luggage, Morgain made for shelter in her canvas square, though changed her trajectory to keep a closer watch upon her beloved against their adversary, seating herself on his other side and as far from Luctus as politely possible.
“Rest assured, I would not allow you to lose a brother so easily,” The extreme bitterness of her address alarmed Lucem as he found it too unrestrained from her usual calm to be purely anger for Luctus’s purposeful delays; Morgain, on the other hand, noticed and decided to add a “Your Excellency” that merely approached to sarcasm.
Luctus scoffed inwardly and opened his mouth to speak, but he was surprised by an icey grip upon his heart that made him stumble instead, “I suppose it was improper of me to intrude: I shall bother you no more now, Lucem, be well.” With that, Luctus exited the tent wondering why Lucem’s ignorance towards his sin against Morgain relieved him so: that fool has nothing. In fact, he could have killed him right there just now.
Yet, it was as though the glares of the Priestess, the general, the rows of soldiers, the ministers in the capital…hidden disdain thrusted upon him cuffed his hands, and any faulty pull against the chains would birth a spark to revolution that would burn him alive.
Meanwhile, Luctus’s fears solidified the second he left the Commander’s quarters as Lucem allowed himself to sink back into his cushions with a sigh of relief, but remembering to seize his lover’s hand before she was rushing back to her medicines, “Morgain.”
The warmth of his hand and the soft whisper with which he uttered her name froze her with dreams of a better time, “Please…don’t touch me.” She broke remembrances as she snatched her hand out of Lucem’s.
“Are you…hurt? What’s wrong?”
“I am” — the despair with which her love searched for the source of her pains cracked the last word to the lie — “fi-fine…” Anguished tears assaulted her, and she turned her back to him in a fruitless attempt to hide.
“Mor, please…who wronged you?” Lucem answered the question as Morgain remained silent in her sorrows. “What have Luctus done?”
Finally, with a long sigh, Morgain made the resolve for her confession, “I-I was going to t–tell you after you are better…” Then truth flowed forth, of first the true nature of Lucius’s death and then of the negotiation and the poisoning and…and…
Morgain watched in silent horror blank despair settling over Lucem’s features as he clenched and unclenched his fist as though to see if the strings of fate would finally break. Then he tore his gaze away from her and fixed his eyes upon the earth instead.
“I am sorry, Mor,” He started. “I am sorry…I didn’t think…I was not there for you when you needed me most…Please forgive me, it’s all my fault…”
She merely denied his self blame with a firm shake of her head before fresh tears washed her cheeks anew, sorrow and fear joined by a splinter of relief. For the first time ever since the day she exerted all of her powers to forget, she allowed herself to not flinch away from her love’s outstretched hand; she knew from his diverted gaze the agony of powerlessness and remorse amplified by his tendency to protect those he loves. So, his suffering temporarily distracted her from her own, prompting her to lift herself out of darkness and into the security of his arms.
As his beloved wept noiselessly into his chest, Lucem rested his chin upon her head as he squeezed his eyes shut: despite her mutters of forgiveness, cold tendrils gradually wrapped themselves about his heart and wrung it dry.
Had I been there with her, had I been more capable so she did not have to beg for aid on my behalf, had I been able to swallow my pride and fears and merely retreat or surrender…
“Lucem,” She quieted his rambling thoughts, drawing just enough out of his embrace to cup his face and catch his gaze. “Love, please…we cannot afford to think like that…”
He agreed by placing his hand upon hers, sighing at the intrinsic burdens of remorse and into the contact as his fellow sufferer pressed herself into him, stealing the apologies from his lips by locking the latter with her own. Once again, he squeezed his eyes shut, allowing himself to indulge within his Priestess’s desires and without another string of hesitant guilt.
Just for the instance.