IX.

Her eyes had long adjusted to the darkness, though, looking through the window of the cell, she still struggled to distinguish between shadows and midnight plumes. For a couple of weeks now, Lyra visited the Nokshan, and his disinterest to her grim world was painfully clear with his unmoving posture, wings cradling the tortured soul in a feathered cocoon for warmth and a false sense of security in the corner of his prison.

Still she came here. Memories of the look of pained disappointment and the images of his blood on her palms drove her here.

“Again,” She muttered aloud. “I am…deeply sorry, Aldebaran.,”

Perhaps…he was a little cruel. The girl’s remorse reeked from the little opening. Yet, she was part of the reason he was trapped here in the first place. He repeated that truth every time his name rolled off her tongue with an enchanting ring, a heart’s plea for redemption that he could not give.

Maybe I would at least thank her, he thought. His stiffened wings lowered their guard enough for him to peek: the relief upon Lyra’s features dissolved most of his ill will. Opening his mouth to speak, he found his throat and tongue parched by silence, which permitted a pathetic wheeze. Her relief was replaced by panic, and he thought it was another gesture of sympathy until he heard it too, the low creak from the dim corridor was a harbinger to intruders. Like a shadow in the face of light she darted away, and he could only shrink back into his cocoon and expect the worst.

Each disorderly drum of leather against stone further hollowed his bones. What do they have in store for him this time? He scoffed.

As the door to his cell yielded to a spell, Aldebaran wondered where Lyra would hide. He greeted his usual oppressors with the usual resentment, though he noticed an addition, more finely dressed by time and wealth.

The new man assumed authority, “I’ve heard much of you, Aldebaran Xacur. I am Lord Claud, the Grand Priest.”

Silence suggested that he was supposed to answer to that title, and Aldebaran felt a little uncultured for not being impressed. However, he placated that guilt since the Priest felt no qualms in butchering his name.

“We need a very simple thing from you, Aldebaran” — the grating mispronunciation drilled his ears — “I am sure you are well aware of the…treaty…that we want from you.”

Of course. For days now these men had pressured him with more or less violent means to consent to a contract drawn to bind his soul to the Empire. He stared on, for the only gold he had was his silence and he might as well try to buy time with that.

“Your will is admirable…it must be quite a privilege to be your ally,” Aldebaran sniffed the stench of the Priest’s rage boiling beneath the wrinkled surface. “Just imagine, what would you do for your ally…or family?”

The Priest’s words summoned a dark incense, filling the cell like the poison in a temple.

Lord Claud drew out a burst of color from his sleeve. A leaf…no…feather…, “Does this bear any significance to you?” Aldebaran’s gasp did not pass unnoticed. “Your thoughts on the contract, now?”

Aldebaran wanted to persuade his pulse to stop chasing paranoia. It could be a…counterfeit. It could be…, “Where did you get that?” His own voice betrayed him.

“I understand your disbelief, Aldebaran, but you see, your sister was quite distressed to hear of your capture and boldly attacked the Empire. Her efforts were…valiant.”

A story…fabricated to coerce him into the contract. In his mind the laughter of a fledgling called, Brother, brother…

“She’s recovering quite well. Her vitality surprises me.”

Lies…all of it…Brother, brother! The laughter lost its ring and devolved into a shriek. BROTHER!

“…What happened to her?”

“Well…”

All of the sudden the Priest shifted, the incense drained from room as the door swung open to reveal another intruder, announced by cold chuckles.

“My dearest priest,” The musing voice sent a chill down Aldebaran’s spine. “I was looking for you…” The man turned to the Nokshan with a slight smile, “My apologies, Aldebaran, Horatio told me a while ago that you were looking for me…but perhaps the rebels’ perverted painting of our Empire’s traditions confused you, but holding my daughter against a blade hardly set you at a good place.”

Aldebaran bristled at the proximity to his revenge. The Emperor…immediately before him…Fear drained the colors from the Priest’s features. The demonic airs made breathing hell, each gasp drawing images of tortured souls. Just who is this man?

“What is your purpose here, Lord Claud?”

“…Curiosity, your Majesty. Forgive your lowly servant…”

“Now that’s a first. A Grand Priest bowing to the Emperor…be gone then. I have a word for Aldebaran here.”

The Priest stumbled out with his posses, and the Emperor looked pleased, “Now, what is it that you hold against me?”

Aldebaran was shocked that the incident so traumatic to him have no bearing to the author of it…, “Have your hands been so congealed in blood you no longer care?” To Aldebaran’s surprise and perhaps imagination, a flash of hurt passed the man’s features.

“Bah, you are right,” A wave excused redemption. “Why should I care? Do make an effort to talk to your benefactor, though. I had enough of Lyra complaining,” He turned and left after a “Good day.”

As the door banged closed, Aldebaran noticed that he was still trembling. What of Eridani? Just why…why…

On the other side Lyra clasped her hands together and rid herself of the disguise. What on earth did I just do…? The multitude that haunted her since her childhood, haunted the generations before chuckled, Welcome, child. And she, too, was not spared from the demons as she buried her face into her hands, crumbling to the earth.

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