XXXVII.

How would that even be fair? Lyra just got here. Athlem told herself that as she approached the lifeless body, ignoring the traveling cloak that was always draped over her shoulders at her faintest shiver. She heard the stir at the stairwell but cared not: ‘tis only natural the rest of the household would rush at the sound of such a crash. Her shaking hand wrenched the dark blue fabric from the corpse and found, to her pleasant surprise, a body unmarred and most importantly, with two arms. Irritated by her own stupidity and confusion, she turned the body over to find the face of the patriarch frozen in a scream of silent horror. She had the urge to kick the villain for such a fright: why on earth does he donne her beloved’s cloak? No matter, the man’s heart beats not, his warmth escaped the house alongside the shadow of a monster.

At that point, Athlem’s grasp of the earth steadied enough for her to hear her own voice as she stated, officiating the obvious, “He’s gone.”

From the corner of her eyes she saw the newly widowed stopping Lyra’s explanation, for all of them witnessed that shadowy beast. The only explanation needed, she realized, was when and where on earth Lyra and this Nokshan came from. A brief spin of a tale, a few convincing words from “the messenger of the Creator,” and the gracious hostess merely nodded, her children thoroughly confused by the concept of a Nokshan in real life and the idea of freedom from their dictator as they peeked from the stairs. The woman went to the cold corpse and inspected, untouched.

“I…don’t know,” Confusion was no mask of grief in this case. “What was that beast? Where did it…” They could pretend that the shadow was but a figment of collective hallucination, but the sparse furnitures wasted astray, tables overturned, ruined like the beauty of a reunion too long deferred. “I apologize deeply for the disturbance, I…am at a lost myself.”

The woman went on to mumble some courtesies and after some obligatory declines between the two parties they arrived to the predetermined conclusion that the daughters would move to the master bedroom with their mother from their shared room to accommodate the new guests for any blink of rest the long night may offer them. Amidst the discussion the belated form of a man slunk down the stairs in his usual grace, found his usual place by Athlem’s side and whispered a “what is going on?” before he saw first the man in his cloak motionless on the cracked floor, then as he traced his eyes upon the lines of attention the two foreign yet most familiar forms there in the corner of the living room.

He opened his mouth to speak, rendered himself senseless and made out an, “Ah.”

The presence of the widow and her daughters delayed Lyra’s attack upon Horatio with the same strangulation of passion she gave Athlem, but their eyes communicated the same sentiment.

The nervous woman staunchly refused their help on restoring order to her household lest the shiver of pride persevering in her husband’s decades of oppression should be hurt. So the four guests bid the women as good of a night as this could be and ascended the ancient stairs. Before that, however, Lyra saw from the corner of her eyes the youngest daughter taking a strolling pace to see her father, peeking under the large rag that now occupied the man’s despicable facade. With a girlish flourish she set the rage back down, a hearty smile blushing her cheeks before she snapped about to face her mother and sister with her face a fresh leaf of counterfeit sorrow, one page of the volumes of mystery that Lyra had already collected about the girl since the little one crashed into her earlier this day with those badly-bounded leaves written all over.

“What is wrong with that girl?” The utterance was not aloud until the four of them were alone and after enough time was allocated for celebration. “Grinning like so at her own father’s death.”

Horatio chuckled, unwilling to leave the situational irony alone, “Says you who did nothing but smiled when the Emperor disappeared.”

“A tyrant cannot be missed,” Lyra insisted.

“Must a tyrant wear a crown?” Horatio continued. “Anyhow, the girl is still most strange.”

They wondered off to other things, retracing their treks, and amongst the conversation Athlem involuntarily dozed off with her head resting on Horatio’s shoulder, at which they took as indicator enough to agree to seize as much repose as the escaping night could spare. The physician was too fatigued to be mortified.

It was only when Horatio slipped the door shut after another gentle hug did Lyra notice the dilemma, that under some strange assumption the lady had only cleared out one room between her and Alde. He, too, noticed the crisis and indicated that he would gladly join Jiube in the night air. Lyra proposed dividing the room in some way, volunteered to take the outdoors herself, but was ignored as Alde deemed the nostalgia of sleeping under open night skies while contesting in a losing war against the silvery masses of the night more than a luxury. So it was settled, and they bid each other goodnight, while Lyra watched with an inexplicable melancholy the turn and darkness that swallowed him from her sight.

Could she have grown reliant to him from mere months of inseparable companionship of one who was an assassin after her life before?

Still she was exhausted, hardly mustering the strength to perform the rituals of propriety in dressing for sleep before sinking into the mats and blankets. There were no stars for her to compete against, for the only twinkling things were the scripts upon the pages blanketing the floor which shifted imperceptibly out of the corner of her eyes.

She yawned and succumbed to the calm of darkness.

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