VII.

For the decade that she had walked this world she had never seen a room so heavy. It was struggling to breath as much as she was, weighed down by the dark furnitures and the maroon banners and the dull carpets and too many solemn men in dark cloaks. They were all speaking, some over another while others merely contributed to the murmur of discussion that she was left out of: the only time she was involved was when she first stepped in hours ago and shocked them with her existence as she stated her purpose of saving her brother. Her wings felt that their colors might’ve been offensive by how much the inhabitants of the room stared, so they drooped sadly towards the floor.

She decided to watch their mouths very closely to see if she was offending them, squinting to match the angry noises to words since she was not as familiar to this language as her brother. Still, it didn’t take a linguist for her to read their body language and their grating tone, and she was far from optimistic.

The deep murmurs died down, and the man with a stiff collar enunciated as though she was dumb, “We are deeply sorry, Lady Eridani, but you must understand that your brother said himself that we should consider him dead if he should fail to return.”

Do they even know her brother? She still remember the way he smiled after he caught when she, a fledgling, tripped and fell into a forested ravine. No one knew that he broke an arm and a few ribs in their rough landing until they got home, when their mother crumbled him in a tight embrace after hearing about what transpired.

The memory unsettled her, urging her to blurt out, “Just how dense can you all be?”

She gladly showed herself out of the meeting room and into the freedom of the manor grounds. If she squinted, she could pick out a line of blemishes in the Creator’s clear sky canvas. Birds, reduced to miniscule blots in this distance. She subdued the urge to take off and join them, choosing to walk on instead. Just why wouldn’t anyone help her brother? How could anyone abandon their friend?

More importantly…How could he abandon her?

She traced a scar in the earth the humans cleared as a decorative path, following it to distance herself from the baroque building. The shade thrusted forward by outstretched leaves and branches sheltered her, whispered with rustles empty promises. How does her mother turn a cold shoulder to her own son in the face of death? Still the entire clan would not approve of her rashness once they find out that she snuck out on her own to find the whereabouts of her brother…they probably already did find out…

“Lady Eridani,” She jolted, fearing it was one of her clansmen; standing just outside of the circle of shade was no Nokshan, but one of the dark-cloaked men that sat at the head of the table.

He introduced himself as Francis, “I am deeply sorry for the harsh tones of my fellow rebels. We’ve all been quite devastated when we caught news of your brother’s capture. He was almost like a brother to a lot of us…”

She stiffened in her seat under the tree, glancing at the stranger before her for his bold claim.

Francis sighed, brushing stray leaves and dried sticks off a boulder for his own seat, “To me…he reminded me of my son…”

Eridani was more forgiving now, meeting directly the rebel’s deep eyes for the first time.

“Cornelius was also so rash…witty…and so eager to change the world for the better,” Francis seemed to be distracted by his fingertips for a second as though his nostalgia slipped through them. “It was a storm…when he thought it was the perfect opportunity to ambush General Marcellus’s forces during the night. When he and his squadron went around the mountains they were caught in a landslide…not even a part of the body could be recovered.”

“…I am sorry…”

“…You must know that, as rebels, we’ve all lost things…for what? Every day I fear what would become of us if we fail…will we just be a blemish in history? Will we even be in history?”

Eridani hated the dejection, felt sorry for both Francis and Cornelius, but most of all, was angered by the suggestion that his brother’s death would be for nothing, “You can’t just sit there and mope about the past! You can’t just assume that he’s dead…We must do something, mustn’t we?!”

Francis arched a brow, “Lady Eridani, we have expended our forces. All of our men are tired and are dying too fast. We are but eggs dashed against a rock…”

“I can help!”

The rebel leader appeared shocked, “Apologies for my bluntness, but you are an outsider and I dare not hurt any more of you.”

“You would kill me if you don’t let me help…I…” She didn’t notice the tears that stealthily made their way down her cheeks until they leapt off her chin to their deaths upon the back of her hand. “I…”

“I understand…but…”

“Please…I cannot imagine losing my brother…I…”

“…” Francis got up, and she thought that she had thoroughly annoyed the man and was terrified that he would leave her, too; instead, he stepped into the circle of shade offered by the tree, “What type of man would I be if I let another son of mine die in vain? Come, Lady Eridani,” he offered his hand. “Let’s go save your brother.” She could not read Francis’s face in the shadows, but the promise of adventure was clear enough.

The air stilled, the birds shrieked, and the line of birds beat their wings steadily forward high above, drawing away further as she studied the handful of hope before her.

She smiled through her tears and seized it.

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VI.

The night winds cut his cheeks as he attempted to continue gliding above the dense forests. The sky was especially dark in his clouded vision along with an unspoken question: what was that overpowering aura encircling the Princess?

“Ugh,” A sharp jolt by his side reminded him that he never bound his wound and now paid the price for his hastiness.

Still, he was far from safety, so he paced himself while his hand failed at staunching the oozing blood.

“Alde, where are you going?” Eridani ambushed him with a hug.

“It’s just a simple mission, Eri,” The little one let go of him, skipping around to store herself upon a shelf with a hop and a flap of her wings.

“What is it? Mother wouldn’t tell me.”

“It’s just two months, Eri.”

She pursed her lips, “One.”

“One and a half?”

Her smile was brighter than the vibrant blue of her plumes as she leant forward, throwing herself off the shelf into his outstretched arms, “You better be back by then.”

“I promise.”

He gasped, the harsh winds killing nostalgia. Wait for me…Eri…I’m going home…

As though to thwart his promise, fog dense enough to blind him to his own hands materialized within the blink of his eyes.

“What on earth…” A shift in the atmosphere prompted him to dive left, missing a gust of wind forceful enough to dent the trees below.

A strike the weight of rolling boulders followed split-seconds later, a splintering crash. He narrowed his eyes: the thin powder of moonlight fell through gusts of fog, outlining the looming stone giant the imperial summoners ripped from the earth to stop him. He aimed to fly above it, but the golem’s long reach caught him off guard.

Unbalanced from a close pass, he did not have time to comprehend the direction of the next blow. He drew his sword and spun around, but the stone staff knocked him out of the air and sent him crashing into the earth. The garble of crunching branches and bones in his descent was indistinguishable.

He recollected himself upon a stubborn branch, unable to distinguish joy from dread that he still lives since the battery was mostly absorbed by his wings. He turned around, and immediately regretted doing so as he fought his breath for what seemed like hours until he could finally push himself to stand against the weight of his mistakes and injuries and now broken wings, leaning against the trunk.

The world before him swerved: if only he could blame the fog or be deaf to the drum of uniform steps that he initially thought was his heartbeat; steadily, troops marched towards him in their panicked search.

As one of the captains drew closer, Aldebaran tugged in his broken wings, biting back agony, “Any trace of him? The golems moved.”

“It’s very difficult to search in the dark, captain.”

“…Lord Horatio would kill us if we don’t deliver…” The torchlight flickered and bounced off the captain’s thoughts that stiffened into resolve. “Smoke him out then, burn this area if necessary.”

“Yes, captain.”

Aldebaran didn’t understand what extent of desperation would justify the destruction of an entire forest, and his confusion allowed a slight stir to snap a small branch along with the two soldiers’ attention to him. A mere instinct made him leap off the branch, sheathing his blade in the captain’s throat while drawing a gash across the posse’s back; his pain dulled him.

“He’s here, help!” The soldier’s last words drew a squadron.

Before the body even hit the floor, Aldebaran squeezed his eyes shut, allowing his haggard breathing and skipping heartbeat to be the only sound to him. A blade was slashed at him, a spear was thrusted towards him, but did he care?

 

What is this beast? Horatio was mesmerized by the scene…even with his wings clinging lamely by his side, the Nokshan dove and swept past trained guards as though airborne, gentle yet with a deadly edge as he fell ranks after ranks. Time paused, the air was so dense with murder that it was as though the blood of his enemies stilled midair to record the fluid motions of his sword.

The advisor didn’t blink until the last of the fifty-men squadron struck the ground, and all was still. Aldebaran let out a shuddered breath as time returned to remind him of his suffering, bringing him to his knees though his hands clung stubbornly to his sword.

“Aldebaran Xacur,” Horatio tried the sound of that name aloud, turning the downcasted look to him. “Surrender. It would be a waste if you die here.”

The Nokshan loosed his hands from the hilt briefly to warrant the imperial advisor to tread a few steps over the carpet of corpses.

The Nokshan managed to pushed against the earth and lunge forward. But, the moon betrayed a glint of the weapon and Horatio knocked it off its fatal trajectory with a belated draw. He felt the screech of the collision and heard the snap and clang of a shattered blade. Then pain erupted in his left shoulder.

As the last bit of dust settled, Aldebaran’s strength forsook him and he slumped against his enemy’s frame. Horatio tossed his broken blade to catch the broken body, easing the Nokshan’s persistent grip and wrenched the damned thing piercing his shoulder free. The sting was bearable and the boy surprising light.

Aldebaran panted, giving up on struggling since the remains of his fight went to negotiate with his eyelids to stay opened. I’m sorry, Eri. The world was dark.

Horatio couldn’t make out Aldebaran’s fading whisper beyond a repeated syllable. “Eri,” he stilled and submitted to tormented rest as he lost to his heavy eyelids. Eri, the souls echoed.

Horatio reached for the vial deep in his pocket and uncorked it, forcing the cure to the poison dubbed on Lyra’s dagger down the Nokshan throat.

“A waste,” He convinced himself. “It would’ve been a waste.”

V.

“You are such a child,” She said to the despondent girl before her. Lyra never really imagined she would ever fall as low as to speak to a mirror; yet here she was, sitting before a glass, not with vanity but hope to find the gall that she never has.

She diverted from meeting those fierce eyes to focus on her features…She relieved herself of the disguise now that the day’s almost ended, and yet…even without the disguise she was a mold of the Emperor, only differentiated from her father by delicacy owed solely to femininity and a nose leaning more towards her mother’s side.

She remembered that she was supposed to meet Horatio hours before…probably just to make sure Lord Claud did not seriously hurt her. But, she thought herself unworthy of the attention. Oh Horatio, whose first arrival to the Empire along side her mother, his sister, marked the beginning of his steady climb up the Emperor’s trust and consequent power.

A crack from the window snapped her away from her reflections, reminding her of the howling wind outside with its minions of leaves and branches brushing against glass. She got up, tugging the thick curtains closed to block out the annoying rays of a setting sun.

Before she even turned around a force knocked the air out of her lungs, a cold shiver pressed against her neck while her hands were bounded by a firm grasp.

She couldn’t catch her breath to scream, so she looked up at her assailant: sharp eyes, delicate features, and…not a cape, but a pair of midnight wings whose tips barely brushed the marble floors.

Then the sharp ache of a shallow cut at her neck nearly deafened her from the assassin’s voice, “Where is the Emperor?”

Thank God that she was no longer wearing her disguise, “I…I don’t know,” Her wits and spells had fled her.

“Who are you to him?” So he could sense the similarities between her and the Emperor…her father…the pressure upon her throat had lessened though she was still paralyzed by fear.

Before she could speak, the doors burst opened to introduce the elite guards. “Your Highness!” Still, she was trapped, the sharp edge against her throat, “A foul move, and she dies.”

The quiet only lived for a split second. Lyra watched with dread as a thought crossed the men’s minds uniformly: they looked from her to the intruder. The Princess. The assassin. No, not just any rogue rebel for they saw the midnight wings, too.

The Angel of Death.

The fame. The reward. False confidence.

To her surprise, the assassin scoffed and whispered to her ear, “Last chance, who are you?”

“Does…it matter if you are going to kill me anyway?”

“I am not going to kill an innocent. Just tell me.”

Panic made her honest, “I’m Lyra, daughter of… Sapphira of Etzion and Luctus of none.”

“Ha, perhaps we are in the same opinion about a certain individual.”

The guards’ array of spells were made pathetic by the assassin, who trusted her enough to let go of her hands, reached out a hand and nullified the attack with an invisible fortress formed just before the breadth of his palm.

Lyra didn’t understand why he had placed her out of harm’s way, tugging her to his side and brushing the battalion aside with his outstretched hand instead.

Could he be naive enough to trust her?

Still, a voice within her head resonated with the soldiers. If I am to kill this man, I would be greater than any men.

“Lyra!”

Looking up, she saw Horatio flanked by Athlem the court physician and armed with somber rage. “Villain, identify yourself.”

The assassin responded flatly, “I am Aldebaran Xacur of the rebellion. And, you are?”

“Horatio of Etzion.”

“Where is your Lord?”

Aldebaran had just enough time to draw his sword away from Lyra’s neck to parry a stab, heavy and fast enough to pierce the forcefield and draw sparks. How could a human deliver such an attack? Aldebaran allowed a split second of doubt before he repelled Horatio with sheer force.

Still, it was enough distraction for Lyra to remember the dagger hidden in her undershirt…seized it, and twisted about just enough to turn and bury the blade into the assassin’s flesh.

He gasped, shoving her aside and springing back to the window from which he came, realizing too late the depth and venom of the cut as he wrenched the dagger free from his side.

He looked up, pained by disappointment, “Does your actions run as haphazardly desynchronized from your mind as your soldiers from your orders?”

She marveled at the dark stain blossoming on his side, but before she could think of anything, the Nokshan reduced the windows into a shower of glass. He barely deflected another stab before diving off the balcony and into darkness.

“Give chase, traitors, lest you have a death wish,” Horatio’s calm command awakening the remaining soldiers. Athlem didn’t need a cue to tend to the Princess’s minor injuries.

As the men thundered out, Horatio inspected his blade and discovered a fresh dent with an air of solemnity that clouded his usual warmth and concerns for the Princess.

“Horatio…?” Lyra swatted the physician’s hand away and made her way to her advisor.

The clouds cleared, “Oh child, are you harmed?”

“I’m fine…”

“Ath, is she lying?”

“No, it’s just a minor cut–”

“–When have I ever lied to you? Where on earth are you going now?”

She hated the way he turned around with his slight smile, his brow arched as he replied, “Where else, but to clip a pair of wayward wings?”

“But…”

“Please just stay here. I will take care of him.”

She was too mad at Horatio to bicker. While he left without a sound she stared at her hands, the dark petals of scarlet the withered remains of an ugly flower she never wanted to paint.

IV.

“Your Majesty!” The tremor in the call weighed heavily against Lyra, drying her throat as she tore her gaze from a parchment to look up to the latest intruder. “Your Majesty!”He was a soldier with a fellow countryman leaning upon his shoulder; as they wobbled closer to the throne Lyra saw that the leaning soldier was wounded. Could it be an emergency with regards to the…rebellion? One of the many wars that her father waged? A wild dragon? The possibilities are endless.

“No need to bow now; pray tell what wind brought you thus?” She reminded herself to put aside sympathy and resume the impatient disposition according to her disguise as the missing Emperor.

The injured soldier showed gratitude nonetheless, “Your Majesty…for we were merely looking for the root of the rebellion…their leader…when we went to the village where General Shalot lived…The battalion was successful in…eliminating the target and his accomplice…but on our return…” — He was caught in fit of coughing, while his companion watched with more consternation than concern — “Oh, horror, horror…we were…ambushed by an angel…oh…an angel…”

Lyra cannot help but interrupt the narrative, “Are you the sole survivor of your regiment?”

“Aye, Your Majesty.”

“What is your name?”

To her amazement, a look of horror overcame both soldiers’ facade, before the wounded man fell to the ground, groveling more to fear than pain, “Please…forgive your…lowly servant, Your Majesty, your lowly servant had not abandoned his post…he would not dare…”

Lyra scoffed, “Get up, you are dirtying the carpet.”

“Your Majesty…please…I have yet to meet…my wife is with child…”

“You fool,” She gestured for the head servant. “Ara.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“Call for Athlem,” for that was the court physician. “Tend to this man.”

“Your will be done, Your Majesty.”

As the injured man was carried off the scene, his companion was tempted to follow suit.

“You stay: I have a small inquiry for you.”

And his face went paler still, “…Yes, Your Majesty.”

“When and where did you find this man?”

“I…Your lowly servant was merely guarding the post an hour ago when he stumbled towards the gate…he said…he was clearly not conscious of his words.”

“Pray tell.”

“He said, ‘The Angel of Death’ sent him here.”

“…” Lyra thought a little, for the title was not unfamiliar: could the so-called ‘Angel of Death,’ the champion of the rebels share the mind of a housecat who plays with an unfortunate sparrow, leaves it half dead, and presents it like a trophy by breaking the barriers the Empire’s finest sorcerers had stationed about the palace? That means the cat’s claws are to be reckoned with. “You’ve done well. Return to your post.”

“My life’s thanks, Your Majesty,” The watchman left after a low bow.

She was pondering on the conditions of the rebellion when Horatio and Lord Claud the Priest entered. She braced herself for another lecture.

“Your Majesty, if we can beg for some of your time,” Oh no, Horatio begged.

Lyra dismissed the guards and servants, and the second the doors swung shut, Claud began, “The rebellion is a lot more severe than we dared to believe. Even the Elite Guards faced defeat.”

Horatio continued, “It has become quite obvious that a…forceful confrontation is unavoidable for they had slaughtered our previous messenger.”

As always, Claud was impatient in flaunting his foresight, “That had been my opinion since the beginning, Lord Horatio” — Lyra raised an eyebrow at the emission of addressing her altogether — “Those rebels are allergic to sense…”

As always, Lyra was impatient in shutting this man up, “You know,” Lyra thought aloud. “I do not understand why we bother: why not stage an assassination, be rid of ‘my father’ for good then all of you could be freed from upholding this lie? Appease the rebels…everyone can be happy. You don’t even have to fear their retribution if you are the ones to work with them on getting rid of me. Or, is that already underway?”

“Your Majesty, how can you speak with so little trust — ” Horatio began.

“– Your frail, feminine mind does not allow you to understand the extend of your idiocy,” ah, she had done it again: the priest went ballistic. “The rebels loathes the present order, and desires nothing but chaos! Not only do you fail your part, your narrow thoughts only plan to avoid all responsibilities.”

Yes, here’s the priest with his attempt at giving a piercing analysis of her character, “So you think you know how to become a monster?” Lyra sprang up from the throne, sickened by it all. “Have you ever dreamt of finding the need to pretend to be the murderer of your mother, uncles, aunt, cousin and only friend? ‘Present order’? There is no order in such outdated ideals, if so many are so displeased with it!”

At this point, death was fairly appealing to Horatio, “Princess Lyra, please don’t mind him…Lord Claud, you are being quite blasphemous –”

“– Blasphemy can only be committed against the divine, and this foolish girl cannot be further from it with her tongue tainted with rebel’s speech lest she is the devil itself.”

“Ha,” Lyra knew not how the words tumbled. “You hang on my father’s heels as though your life depends on it, and still don’t know he is the devil.”

“Lyra…” Horatio tried.

“Insolence!” Claud cried.

Tedious, old fool…she spat, “Very well, this insolent, frail, feminine mind is the only instrument for the survival of your beloved ‘present order.’ Watch your own insolence since this narrow mind of mine is not allergic to reason and has no space for your foolishness,” Lyra strode off, threw the doors open with such force that warranted the court to keep their distances, and left Horatio fighting the urge to stab the clueless Priest and then himself knowing that he has to somehow summon the wisdom to comfort a poor abused soul.