XXXI.

The town stuck like a stark contrast to Athlem at first: hearty red bricks, bustling vendors, lanterns leftover from a festival too fond in memory to be taken down…yet as Lyra joined the ebb and flow of visitors she saw its resounding resemblance to the physician: a mix of genuity with civility, and a quaint touch of character.

“Who?” Jiube reminded her of his existence: Alde found him cowering in a hole in a tree after the incident with the water nymph, and since Alde is too attention-catching, Jiube is accompanying her instead into town.

“Shh…” She ruffled soft feathers to coax the thing back into hiding under her hood.

She went past the boulevard of drooping branches and their whiskers, the spring of her steps cushioned by crushed banyan seeds and the shade casted by the giant green parasols. Alde told her earlier that a few imperial guards stalked about. Could it be that they, too, were searching for Horatio and Athlem? Perhaps they already got them? She felt for the hilt of her sword and her pounding heart, though she hardly knew how to wield a blade or yield her heart.

As they exited the shelter of shade, a grey house and its roof slanting into the security behind brick walls just tall enough for privacy and short enough for the tops of the citrus trees to reach over, greeted them. Right above the wooden gates hung a sign with a simple indicator, “Doctor Denthea.” It baffled her that the sign persisted even after such a long time after Athlem’s absence, though it then occurred to her that her relatives must’ve continued the business.

Oh, her relatives.

Lyra congratulated herself for her ignorance. She could blame Athlem for her silence on the subject: the number of times she’s ever remotely hinted at her family fit in one hand. As she scraped her brain for a flake of memory she vaguely found a scene of her inquiring after Horatio and Athlem’s absences one time…when she was five? Younger, perhaps…to which her mother said, “They went to visit Athlem’s, but will be back in a matter of a few weeks.”

So here she was, a hand apprehensively wounding itself about the door handle. Jiube had long made its escape and she thought it was chirping in belated triumph until she realized it was a warning.

“Do you need help with anything?”

Despite the gentle timber of the inquiry she was startled, snapped around to find a woman carrying her age with her straight back, sharp eyes and infinite grace. Lyra knew she must have appeared quite suspicious, lingering by a door with her hood and a bird on her shoulder.

“I…was wondering if Doctor Denthea is here,” She managed.

“You are looking for me?” The woman mused. “Very well. Come in, then.” As Lyra trailed behind the doctor she darted discreet glances for any hint of familiarity past the gate, seeking any clues of a recent visitor amongst the pebbles and doors.

Her attempt was fruitless, just as the citrus trees lining the walls, so she allowed her eyes to drift back to the paved path before her. They entered the front porch, seated.

“What’s your name?” Now that Lyra could faced her she could read the couplets of time across the physician’s face.

“Lillith from Dolores.”

“Hrm…what took you here?” The woman summoned pen and paper, scribbled.

“My..aunt –” Lyra began a story until she looked up, met the piercing gaze and lips pursed in consternation too familiar to her.

The gaze spoke a question, the slight smile the hint of familiarity wiped clean from the gardens, “She even predicted what colors you would be wearing today correctly.” Lyra looked down at her maroon travel cloak and blamed her narrow range of wardrobe colors. “Want to tell me where you are from again, Lyra?”

The princess was mortified, “Are they still here?”

Doctor Denthea smiled, “No, you missed them by a week. But, don’t worry.”

“Ah…” She thought, stupid and worried.

“I have a note for you,” The doctor got up, went to a shelf to withdraw a book and from it, a letter. It read in a rather foreign hand as follows:

Dearest Niece,

And you thought I was faint? My penmanship fare better with my left hand than Athlem’s best works — and with this comment I’ve earned a hard jab from the more-than-decent doctor). Still I stand by my statements in recognizing that poor penmanship is a common ailment of physicians.

Anyway, I hope this finds you in as good a health as your strange antidote placed me, and as lively the spirits your note gave us. The villain — I suspect Claud — is quite relentless, and one rumor coincided with truth to lead his men here. Very well! Let them chase, for they shall find themselves reluctant to bang at the doors of Etzion, which would not yield except for you and your raven. Hopefully soon.

Love,

Your Dearest Uncle

She fought the urge to bawl and won, “You ought to go soon,” Seeing her reading done, the physician started. “The soldiers would come here again.”

Lyra blinked a few times, “Yes…should you not…would you be fine?”

The doctor seemed surprised, going back to the shelf to restore the book and extract a ray of sunshine where the innocent laughter of a young girl with odd-eyes was forever stored: her brother’s copy, “I cannot abandon my patients. Tell Athlem to write.”

It was painful to leave anyone in their feigned strength: as Lyra exchanged one last nod with her and crossed the paved path armed with Horatio’s note her thought raced.

An idea, wild, sprung up among the cracks of the brick walls, just close enough to smell the flowers upon the orange trees, pungent. She bit her lips, stuffed the letter and Jiube into the sanctuary of her pockets as she paused.

Then she threw herself into action.

*******

*Disclaimer*: Obviously, the picture is just what the town was based on.

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