XIX.

He looked so peaceful, wrapped in a renewed sense of security Lyra didn’t know she could provide. She merely saw the shadows enveloping the tender soul and tugged their tendrils free from the bright centers. Then somehow the children, women, old, or whoever deemed unworthy or too useful to be given a granted a swift death by their devilish invaders, drifted off to sleep.

Perhaps, Lyra looked at her hands, the voices of the multitude could be…helpful? The strings of evil spirits clinging to the survivors seemed more attracted to her, an additional voice to the legion.

But, what is that smell? Her stomach vocally expressed her curiosity and flustered her. She got up, brushed off the unnecessary spirits, then head out.

She found herself assaulted by aromas even her imperial tongue has yet to experience but welcomed nonetheless: a smell was punctured by a sweetness checked by pleasant sourness that watered her tongue. She went to the source.

“How are they?” She still cannot understand how it was acceptable for a man — unless her Nokshan contractee was a cook in his society, then his expert swordsmanship was just…cutlery? To think imperial soldiers were but sliced vegetables — to cure a stew, to smile and feed and wipe greasy mouths and entertain tirelessly…she was annoyed just watching a child’s incessant tugging at his wing, and yet he smiled! Perhaps that is the gulf of difference casted by the possession of younger siblings…Oh wait, a question hovers in the air.

“Yes, most of them are asleep now.”

Aldebaran stirred and ladled into bowls that somehow outlived their owners, “That’s relieving…are you hungry? You must be tired.”

Was she any different from those undeserving children? She wandered as she took a bowl from him, admiring its aromatic contents, smooth smells, and…once she tasted it, colorful textures so harmonious. She took a seat afar, watching the dancing cook fire licking at the prospects of perspectives and distance to frame the Nokshan’s perfect facade.

It was that moment that she realized that she knew as little of the man as the fire. Yes, he has a sister, but that’s all she ever knew. What place does he hold in his society? She felt ignorant, numbed by the false sense of camaraderie and intimacy their contract had imposed upon her. If only…she could know more, to learn why Aldebaran even pointed his blade against her in the first place. What was it that her father had done? The potential for crushing guilt frustrated her.

“Miss!” The cry of a brute disrupted any possibilities of repose for the two travelers. “Mister!” The voice drew closer, and its owner, a haggard, middle-age man of relative authority in lieu of deaths of village elders, showed himself.

Another injured? He internalized her questioning.

What else can it be?

Perhaps a potential reunion?

Lyra silenced her scoff at Aldebaran’s outlandish naivety: did he forget the extend of the massacre? For all the men were killed, the women soiled and tortured, and children gave no accounts besides the tears that just won’t stop, the hollow eyes that just won’t take heart. They still knew not who was responsible for the incident, though she was already certain that it was no other than her own imperial soldiers.

But, when they arrived upon the other edge of the village to find an old woman with snowy white hair that yellowed the white bandages wrapped about her head in comparison, Lyra was prepared for contradiction.

“Grandma Amso,” The villager explained.

The old woman beheld the new intruders to her hut, a building miraculously standing despite half of it being charred black, her eyes, greyed by age skipped from Lyra to Aldebaran, found his cape of feathered midnight and began to speak, “Are you the Messenger?”

“To think the Creator was kind enough to send me his Messenger to take me to him…what is it that I have to do? Are you here to dictate my prayer?”

“I am not here to take your soul,” He stated plainly. “I merely needed the truth…an account of what happened, if you don’t mind.”

“Perhaps a test of my honesty…my well…I will tell it,” So the tale unfurled.

It was in the dead of night when the first scream permeated the air. A spilled lantern, she thought, then she smelled blood. Blood doesn’t come before the smell of burnt flesh and baking mud. She left her bed then, dressed, armed herself with the ravages of time and frailty that may remind the most numbed man-beast of their old mothers. So, when those men came in their blue uniforms her tactic worked: she was only smashed in the head with the butt of a spear and was even given the luxury of watching her village, her life be reduced to a pile of embers to feed greed and lust as her head bled into the unpaved, dirt road.

At that moment, she memorized all of their faces, all of them, each of which now imprinted into her charred wall in place of her daughter’s painting.

All this, Lyra thought after she pulled the tendrils away from the old woman’s soul and they bid her peace, for what? The story told but the color of the men’s uniform and their cries rallying for…wait. She watched Amso’s black mists fumble in her hand. A face, faces all crying for the birth of a new empire as they burnt cultures to the ground.

She turned to Aldebaran at her revelation, “It’s the rebels.”

“What?”

“The rebels did it…they were the ones who raided the village and…where are you going, now?” Clearly, Aldebaran stopped listening: distant remembrances dragged back by the children he was herding bent him with wrath, prompting him to take arms and flight at the first creak of sunlight at the dawn of revenge against those who sent his sister into the hellish clutches of the Empire.

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