XXX.

“You didn’t change,” The old man scratched his spotted head, the migration of hair from his head to his chin so successful that all of the migrants had abandoned their home. “Perhaps a little refined by the city airs, but you didn’t change.”

“Oh? Is that…bad?” Athlem ran a finger down the shelves, found dusts unsatisfactory.

The old man was either hard of hearing, or chose to pretend so to Athlem’s inquiry, “How’s your friend?”

“He’s…alright,” Athlem habitually lied to herself, and the old man knew, and she knew the old man knew: it was dumb for her to attempt a lie in the first place. “Perhaps…it might have been the dust. Ah, that must be it, your workstation is too filthy and your drugs are contaminated. I–”

“–Stop that, you ass,” The old man set down a pestle besides its mortar without gentleness but emphasis, getting up and wading across the loose papers blanketing the room. “How did you uphold your disguise? You are lousy actor.”

Memories flurried up alongside dusts and Athlem turned her attention back to the window in defense.

“Do you remember what I first taught you?” Athlem heard the tumble of wrinkled hands raiding drawers for a forgotten prescription directly behind him.

“Be orderly?”

“No, you stupid. I said…and you were sitting right there next to that shelf being all polite, that it’s not your goddamn fault,” A drawer slammed shut, the search was fruitless. “You are not great enough to be responsible for everything.”

Since when had she been gripping the window panes? Her knuckles burnt white, “But had I done the procedures properly…”

“You haven’t changed,” The old man retraced his paths.

“There’s simply no way I would be the same as myself as a child,” The repetition annoyed Athlem. “How would you judge the past two decades from mere hours of conference?”

The old man looked at her, either incredulous at her stupidity or his own firm grasp of his pupil’s characters, “You proved my point: you assume that not changing your character is detrimental even though staying firm in your beliefs in the winds of the times could be a great virtue. Do you still not believe in your own beliefs?”

“I…”

“How do people trust you with their lives when you cannot trust yourself?” The old man smiled. “Come back next morn’. I should have something figured out then.”

Their conference was over, and Athlem rejoined the world. As fresh air brushed against her cheek she resigned from the task of understanding her mentor altogether. She walked down the main road running through her home town of red bricks and lanterns and loud vendors. It’s gotten a lot busier now, the buildings grew faster than the trees: she was lucky that she found her old home, her aunt’s, to be relatively unchanged. The old woman held onto a firm belief that she might return any day even though she had the decency of preluding her visits with letters. It surprised, really, how writing mend the gaps of distances. But an actual meeting melts distances, as her aunt screeched in sheer joy at the very approach of her carriage and threw herself at her she could only smile stupidly. The very thought of her aunt reminded her of family, and family reminds her of…She kicked a pebble into the grass lining the brick roads.

“It’s not your goddamn fault.”

It’s always Horatio protecting her from the slings and arrows of life. Perhaps that’s why she never had to change. She was spoiled.

Then as though to congratulate her upon her realization, the Creator sent him a messenger with jet black plumes. She saw it sailing ahead of her for her home, realized its course and sped up her own. When she dashed to her study (where Horatio had taken temporary refuse since her aunt was renovating the guest room) she found her beloved in bed, propped up by cushions and stubbornness as he studied her raven’s delivery, his studies temporarily casted aside.

Horatio purred, “I thought you weren’t coming back until later.”

“My teacher told me to go tomorrow…what is that?”

Horatio handed her the satchel small enough to fit in a child’s palm. While cursing her ever trembling hands Athlem untied the strings and extracted the contents: a folded note and a…spherical thing wrapped in flimsy paper. Expecting the note to account for the strange thing, Athlem unfolded that first and read.

Dearest,

Limited paper and time bid me haste, but I am safe. Enclosed should be the heart of a plant that Alde said any decent physician would know how to make use of. I can only take his word for it since I don’t have a clue and know that you are more than decent. We are on our way.

Love,

Lyra.

Horatio, who rested his chin upon the physician’s shoulder and read from there, feigned disappointment, “You are her ‘dearest’…I’ve lost the competition again.”

“She probably assumed that you wouldn’t be well enough to read,” She unwrapped the object to find a red sphere, “Maybe you should’ve bribed her with candy more when she was little.”

“Bah, she’s rotten enough. She doesn’t need rotten teeth, too.”

“And who do you think she’s learned to be rotten from?” Athlem balanced the sphere in the middle of her palm, measuring the thing’s faint pulse. “This…this is amazing.” The Nokshan was right, she knew exactly what to do.

“What?”

“I must go.” She sprung up too suddenly, and poor Horatio nearly fell off the bed when his chin found air. “Ah, sorry…I will be back soon.”

So she ran, fought the urge to skip. The town seemed small, the world smaller. Lyra is alive and Horatio can stay so, too. Was the sky always so blue? Who cares. She’s got two lives to save: Horatio’s, and by saving that, her own.

The pulse in her hand raced against her.

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