XVI.

She always hated birds, for they cheat the pull of the earth with their wings. She especially hated the doves: Who are they to cooh and cuddle, caring for each other ‘til the end? Not even man can do such a thing.

Still, it didn’t stop her from dreaming about these avian. It was the same pair of doves that always haunted her since she first saw them after a conversation with her mother over a decade ago.

“Mama, does your head hurt?” So naive was she when she hung by her mother’s side, thinking that the Empress’s hands were digging into her scalp for a mere headache.

“Nothing, Lyra,” The lie was too obvious. “Come here, let mama see you.”

Short arms wrapped about the stooping Empress, who buried her head, heavy with the crown and suppressed screams, into the girl’s shoulder.

“What’s wrong, ma?” She felt the flood, the quivers, and she was so, so scared.

“…Ma fell in love, Lyra.”

That’s why when Lyra followed her mother’s instruction of going to pick flowers, she was confronted by the doves. She was in the abandoned plot of land obscured by a few turns in the lesser Court’s gardens, for she knew that her mother’s favorite anemones grew there. Amidst the faded bricks and upturned dirt and rusting fences the two sat, their satisfaction in each other’s company made them immune to ugly scenery.

It was confusing, and when she translated their harmonious coohs, disgusting.

Doesn’t she deserve a happier home than an egg?

She ran away, shedding the stone and tears that she didn’t know she was holding. She ran. She wanted to go back. She ran…

…And stopped at the tower where her mother resided, for a crowd gathered there, murmuring. “How did it happen?” “She lost her footing.” “No, she lost her mind.” “Someone pushed her.” “Poor girl.”

Lyra squeezed through the crowd, arriving upon the destination of her nightmare. Her mother, a flightless angel, was still, crushed by the hand of the Creator.

“Mama?” She took a few tentative steps edging the pool of meddled scarlet. “Ma…” She looked at the earth drinking her mother’s blood, then looked at the bloody flowers, then back to the gore.

The throng was frozen by the girl’s distress while she treaded through the red puddle, knelt by the cold corpse, called, until two pushed through the walls of onlookers.

“Lyra, come here,” it was Athlem who spoke first, forcibly tearing the tearing child into her arms without regards of the taints of blood and brains and tears and spit.

Lyra recalled the kind, odd-colored eyes, Horatio’s bloodless look, his shuddered sigh of resignation as he took his cloak and saved his beloved sister from the public scrutiny he thought death would save her from.

“Poor girl, such a young age,” the onlookers cooed harmoniously.

When she snapped out of the nightmare she found herself in hazy dreams, wrapped in a blanket softer than any covers of down that the Empire spoils its royalty with. “Ugh,” The bandages were tight enough for the gash to only ache and burn, so she decided to observe her surroundings with the dancing shadows casted by shivering flames, sharp edges indecisive as to their color. Her eyes gained enough focus to study the strange shape of her blanket…no, they were wings…dark brown dotted with specks of snow. She squirmed, confused as to why the patterns seemed so familiar.

“You are awake?”

She never saw Aldebaran at the mouth of the cave, so she was startled. A gentle purr by her side reminded of her previous question as she muttered, “Yes…” She thought hard but could only remember doves, and as she turned she found herself face to face with a creature most strange: its mostly owlish head topped by stubs of horns and giant beak menacing. To think that she was shielded from the cold by such monstrous wings, and her pillow its downy underside!

“I think the two of you already met…Jiube?” The familiar’s innocent chirp made Lyra felt just a hint of guilt for having just shoved herself away from the giant thing.

“That’s…Jiube?” The monster enjoyed the attention and proceed to prance about the cave, its long tail almost brushing out the fire in its graceless limp.

“Stop it, you idiot,” The familiar plopped down next to the shocked Princess, lifting a wing to offer warm refuge. “Yes…it’s his…partial true form.”

Still, Lyra, whose teeth had already started chattering, gladly accepted the beast’s offer, “Interesting.”

The crackling firewood filled the space between them, and Aldebaran turned his back to her before the silence was solidified. As she watch him sort the berries and roots he unearthed from his pocket she tried without success matching the specimens to the diagrams in Athlem’s ancient books.

“I am sorry,” She thought aloud to the shadow working on the wall.

It paused, “Why? Don’t be.” He continued to crush the ingredients in a makeshift mortar with a pebble.

“But, you spared me that night and I…”

“It’s fine. You wanted to live: that’s human instinct,” He turned to face her, a gentle smile hiding pains somehow spoke genuineness.

“And…I didn’t save your sister…”

“Now, that’s a sin that I authored…”

“Well.”

The last screech of stones signaled the completion of Aldebaran’s project. She drank it with as much suspicion as the energy he spent in making it more presentable.

“I didn’t think you would…do that,” They both knew his comment wasn’t about her taking the medicine. “I don’t think I would be able to humble myself if I was you.” He took the bowl from her, easing her back to the claims of sleep. “You are still very weak. Rest.”

Light-headed from the concoctions of medicine, relief and her fever, Lyra accepted the invitation and, for the first time in too long, tried to believe in a dream of sweet repose instead of the mourning doves.

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