XXIV.

What was that? Lyra wasn’t sure why she was there, sharing an old mercenary’s bloody remembrance. Then she realized she was drowning, perhaps in the little boy’s tears or his people’s blood or the boiling water or the still, green glass surfaces.

Then from the bottom of the water she looked up, blurry visions still not murky enough to obscure the impression of a spot of light. It drew closer then focused to a flickering light. She shifted, her drenched hair pasted to her face, veiling the torch before her. Still, she tugged against the bonds, spiteful of the chair that held her captive.

“Apologies for our…crude methods, Princess Lyra,” Her eyes swept the puddle by the foot of the chair, her soaked clothing then up to the bucket empty in a soldier’s hands.

She scoffed.

“Still, it was a pleasant surprise to see that you’ve survived,” The man added, and she surprised herself when her voice bit back.

“I am not so seasoned in deceiving the Creator, Lord Claud: there is not a string of pleasantness in meeting you again.”

“I have no time to indulge in your useless musings, princess,” The grand priest snapped, shifting the light from one hand to another since a sliver of flame nearly scorched him. “I’ve only sought you to obtain the seal: where is it?”

What seal? Lyra dared not vocalize her ignorance, “I wouldn’t tell you even if it costs my life.”

“Perhaps you only say so in jest. But, you know me, Princess, I’ve prepared for the worst.”

The priest gestured for one of his three soldiers to lead in…children, bounded with chains, terror and a similar origin: the burnt village. She found the girl whose thanks was an angel’s requiem, her voice cracking, “Big sister Lyra…” The soldier struck her small face for silence.

“Please…Lord Claud…”

“No child has to die for your sake if you tell the truth, princess. Where is the seal?”

She could hear teeth chatter in fear awaiting the soldier’s sword to lop off their heads, “I don’t know what you speak of.”

The priest sneered, gestured, and the soldier stepped forward, his sword mechanically drawn to descend. A swish, the girl’s screams buried Lyra’s curses and cries; tattered rags of a dress dyed a fresh crimson.

“You demon!” She wrenched against the chair. “I don’t know what the seal even is, now let them be!” She couldn’t stop the tears, her voice hoarse with anguish.

At the most inopportune time a scout burst in, a stumbling mess with his cape and hood bloodied and awry, “Intruders, my Lord, they’ve wiped out the entire watchguards.”

“Intruders of what nature?”

“I didn’t catch a clear look, my Lord…”

“Ready the steeds, make haste,” The priest shooed the scout away, though the latter was reluctant; turning to one of the soldiers Claud gestured at the children, “Get rid of those.” Seeing that the scout stayed unmoved, he began, “What–”

–She wasn’t the only one who detected it, the air splitting as the scout drew his sword and flicked the executioner’s swing at the unarmed children. Another slash, the soldier stumbled, while the scout leaped forward. She saw the midnight wings unfurl from the stolen uniform, spun, deflected, and cornered the three soldiers from their leader.

Aldebaran seizing the Priest by his collar and slammed him into the cell’s wall, “Where is Eridani?” He growled. “You are her contractor…summon her, now.

“Release Lord Claud or the Princess should die,” Of course, how could Aldebaran forget? The runes about his neck ached.

Lyra gasped, shivering against the weight of the edge pressed against her neck. Should this be her end? It only makes sense for him to choose his sister instead.

To her amazement he released the Priest, but before anyone could react he drew a dagger from his inner pocket, and it found home in the head of her abductor. He darted past the other soldiers, took to her side to make quick work of her binds.

“How did you get here…” She attempted to stand, but the earth was impossible to grasp.

Aldebaran moved in instinctively, giving her an arm to learn on and wrapped his wing about her shoulders while he deflected an incoming strike, “We will talk later.”

One of the soldiers thrusted a blade at them, the other slashed, their Lord Priest ran. Reinforcement arrived, and the chain of children was buried in the chaos. While she gathered her wits and strength under Aldebaran’s wing she watched his blade crossed the other two, the clangs and flashes of violence lost to her as she thought his techniques familiar but couldn’t quite place it. More importantly she was…for the first time in too long…warm. Not the same warmth that Jiube and its fluffiness provided, but the kind from a memory she no longer held…was it…

Aldebaran disarmed one guard and gutted another, and as the last one struck the ground she snapped back to reality, embarrassment only settling in now.

“I’m sorry…I…” She thought about struggling out of his wing, but hunger and isolation made her knees protested against the exercise.

He caught her and in a single motion sheathed his blade and swept her off her untrusty feet, “We must leave…” She saw the flicker of doubt cross his eyes, was it about his decision to lose the clue to his sister to save…her? He caught her staring, “What?”

“No…it’s nothing…” If she looked only into the dark fabric of his tunic the passage of the dungeon and stairs wasn’t as nauseating. “Thank…you.”

He took the precaution of shielding her light-deprived eyes from the unforgiving, setting sun, her gratitude almost unnoticed. He looked into her eyes shaded under the shelter of his wings, their brightness rivaling…no, dimming his least favorite star, the sun.

He snapped away after bidding her to hold tight, taking flight with the blush of the sky behind them.

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