XV.

Life is a hassle. A beautiful one, but still quite a hassle. Every man and woman dragged themselves across the swamps fortune throw them in, but for what? Fame? Power? Love?Any of those things seem to be a lot better than whatever Athlem is doing now, dragging the unconscious body of a grown man across the palace northern corridors. The task was a lot more exhausting than she could remember.

Oh, that came off quite…unnecessarily murderous and foul, huh?

Still, she continued the task, apologizing occasionally should she turn a corner too sharp. But in all honesty, she was more glad than apologetic that her plan worked: it would have been pathetic, anyway, if something so simple still managed to fail. Mix the sedative, test it, apply it, smother. The poor guard, had he had been more courageous and rushed after his comrades, he would’ve been spared.

Athlem was recording her observations of a parasite earlier when a scout suddenly burst in, reporting the strange occurrence of imperial soldiers acting (especially) mindless and attacking all living things that came to their way.

Just like any other panicked intellectual, Athlem rushed to arranged the necessities for travel (a hassle undertook by her own hands for the two of them did not have servants to free themselves from more eyes and ears that would talk) and the deed described in the first three paragraphs, dragging the soldier to their chamber.

“Horatio,” She shook, called.

The advisor murmured before turning his back to her and burying himself deeper into his cocoon.

Had he not been recently crippled, Athlem would’ve simply kick him off their bed, “Gah, Horatio.”

After a lengthy struggle Horatio was finally somewhat awake, sitting on the edge of the bed contemplating the possible emergency while flinging his empty sleeve over his shoulder. “What now…?”

Athlem summarized the state of affairs, and that wiped the sleepiness off the advisor’s face quite effectively.

“What is that for?” Horatio pointed at the motionless body with his chin.

“A…decoy, if we could put it that way.” “Alright.” Athlem wasn’t used to Horatio’s easy acquiescence: it was as though part of the physician’s brain was asleep.

Anyway, she raided the advisor’s wardrobe and successfully hunted his least flattering robe that Athlem had honestly loathed for a good while and did not have time to tell him so. She dressed the unnamed soldier accordingly: his basic features weren’t too different from Horatio, so the hopes of fooling foolish minions and stalling for a glimpse of time was not entirely dead.

At last they left the palace and entered the cool night air, the sky an unnatural jet black licked by orange and bright embers of riotous fires. They heard the cackles of burning wood, though Athlem blocked it out to focus on her role, to live and make certain that others do so, too.

Still, every step was a plague to Horatio, and his complexion was a starch contrast to the ink sky.

“Shall we stop for a while?”

“No…no, I am fine…” Still, Horatio’s body betrayed him, accepting too easily the shoulder offered to him to lean on.

And like that, they made their steady progress down the hall. Darting shadows and splatter of drying blood and parts repainted the walls, and every faraway cry made Athlem stiffen and hasten their pace.

“Almost there…”

He turned a corner, and a blood-curdling cry preceded a blow a mere physician like her dodged out of luck. She fell backward with his weakened companion, watching in horror as the soldier, wide-eyed and without direction, towered over them, a bloodied blade raised and brought at her chest. Somehow, the panic of the moment gave way to movement; Athlem scrambled back. A wet thunk and agony informed her failure: the silver blade was buried instead in her leg. The soldier wrenched his blade free, releasing crimson and a choked scream.

Instinct clamped her hands about the wound, though senses reminded her of the next strike. The rustle of a sleeve, another bloody screech, a wet thump, and a split second of quiet.

She realized that Horatio had a fist raised, and the soldier laid with a crushed head, and the glow of a spell had yet to disappear and the story wove itself. When had Horatio become so powerful?

“Ath…?” Puzzlement met inquisition before the former gave way, blinking at sudden fatigue as the advisor gave a sigh of shivering resignation, slumping to the floor.

“Horatio!” Athlem winced through her wound and felt for her lover’s forehead to find fire.

There was no time to lose.

She bit her lips and bounded her injury, tested the torture of putting weight on it, and gasped. Already the cloth about her thigh was blossoming red, though she gave it no heed and gritted her teeth as she swung Horatio’s arm about her shoulder. The first step with their combined weight was sheer hell, the second a wobble, the third a battle, the fourth a bargain. She drank the blood from her lips and went on, miraculously left alone as though the Creator finally decided to notice her.

At last she made it to the carriage, out of the way of speculating city dwellers in its hiding on the edge of the dense woods. She shoved Horatio into the cart and followed closely, repeating a few orders to the coachmen. The whip cracked, the horses puffed, and onward they went, clattering metal on paved roads.

Why bother dragging along the burdens of life just because fate cracks its whip at you? Leaning back and sighing, Athlem tightened the cloth about her thigh and brushed a stray hair from her beloved’s forehead.

No, she was never affected by the lashes or the slings or the arrows of life, but a warmth only inspired by…

She tugged the strand of hair behind a burning ear as though that would open the Creator’s heart to her silent prayers.

“Don’t leave me…Please?”

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