XLI.

It really didn’t help stabilize the earth beneath him when a man-crow carrying his beloved niece literally swooped down before him. He was faint, and the need to maintain an assuring smile for Athlemwas a chore he did not anticipate to be so bothersome. Athlem tugged herself closely to his side, rebuked his stubbornness in remaining standing with a quiet glare and pursed lips.Lyra threw herself at the two of them in renewed joy, which Horatio appreciated but did not understand, “What’s wrong, you saw us mere instances earlier.”

The girl mumbled, “I know…but it felt much longer.”

They set out for Etzion soon after, unwilling to indulge in the moment of familial unity lest it be ruined by the more clever ones of the searching guards. It was quieter than Lyra was accustomed since Jiube had yet to acceot the two additions to their travels: its owner seemed to share the same sentiment, preferring to scout ahead or to stay behind with Jiube’s temperamental whims. 

A few days into their travels, the Creator doused the world in His mighty tears. In response, they’ve found refuge within an inn intending to stay the night to give Horatio time to inform his brother and not ambush the Etzion king with an unannounced visit. As Horatio went to find ink and leaves while Aldebaran for the mysterious whereabouts of Jiube, Lyra found herself alone with Athlem. The older woman perched upon the bed meditatively, her usual disguise shed: the usually closely plaited hair were freed into a gentle flow of silken locks framing her tender cheeks. Just how could one possibly be fooled to think her a man? Perhaps men thought that a mind so brilliant cannot be feminine, and that women were only characterized by their fragile, shapely forms to be worshiped, which unflattering clothes could easily hide. 

The thin shower of lights from one of the brief breaks of pouring rain fell across the physician’s lap, striped her shoulders, illuminated hair. As Athlem gathered the miniscule warmth from the dull stripe of light before her, Lyra rummaged through so many questions conceived during her misadventures, dared — prompted by the sense of security and the warmth of company — to recollect the images, those flashes of darkness came to focus. Cruel words spat at her face, the spit merely a disgusting guise for valuable information. What did that despicable priest want from her again…?

“The seal,” Her mouth found the words before her mind put together a coherent thought. “Have you heard of it? The traitors seemed to be in search for it.”

“Seal?” A voice of continued dreamy contemplation. “Perhaps…but if Lord Claud sought the thing upon my mind, he is very much misguided.”

“Oh?”

“The seal…I am not perfectly knowledgeable of it, for even Horatio knew very little, is an artifact of sort. An inheritance from your grandfather that was meant to be passed down to his heir. Some suggested that he gave it to his favorite son, Lucem, instead, and I hardly have any clue as to what type of incredible power it harnessed nor its whereabouts. But, what good had it done its supposed owner?”

Lyra was bitterly disappointed by the revelation, but grateful for the confirmation of her inferences and moved to more trivial topics. Then odd, bright colors twinkled and smiled playfully.

“I must ask.” Lyra tilted her head in silent inquiry, “Of the Nokshan, I meant.”

Lyra wasn’t sure why she turned away, hiding a burning cheek, “What of him?” Was she smiling?

“Are you fond of him?”

“What, no!” The snap was too loud to be blameless: as always, the physician’s diagnosis was flawless.

“Do you know,” Athlem teased her flustered niece. “A Nokshan’s familiar is connected to his mind and soul.” Lyra could not help but burst out laughing at the thought of the fluffball and the stoic Nokshan being so intermittently linked. 

Athlem continued, “Don’t you think Jiube is quite fond of you?” Then the fluffball ceased to be funny.

Lyra froze mid-laugh, scoffed, “Stop that, it’s only because I feed it so much.”

“Oh, so you are his soul’s food.”

“Ath, please,” Lyra drew her legs to accompany her in her contemplation. “How in love could he be with an individual who stabbed and nearly killed him?”

Athlem was undeterred by the denial, “I supposed I am not one to judge or say from a study over several short days, but just don’t be fooled by yourself.”

“I know,” She knew the physician’s words were dual-sided.

“Just because he is the first decent man you have ever met besides your uncle doesn’t necessarily mean that he is the only one,” Athlem gave a conclusive nod. “And your uncle sets an incredibly low standard for ‘decent’ characters, anyhow.”

As though sensitive to such attack upon his character, Horatio knocked upon the door and stuck his head in at the utterance of the last line; he blinked a few times, “What did I do this time?”

Athlem raised a brow, “Not only is he guilty, he is clueless: one of the many offenses, perhaps, is barging into conversations unannounced? That is quite an indicator of cheap characters indeed.”

Horatio rolled his eyes, “I am merely here to innocently report that I’ve sent my (very much unreadable) letter and that, as always, you are beautiful.” 

Athlem snapped and threw a cushion, “You smug little–” Horatio quickly shut the door, the pillow struck the handle and the two laughed.

Lyra marveled at the delight and warmth of these brief moment of domestic felicity, could not help but loosed her usual leash upon her imagination: if she was in Athlem’s place, meditating, reaching her hand into the sparkles of sunlight. She would jest with her beloved whose perfect features would wrinkle in feigned hurt at her banter, the cool midnight then quip back in wit at her.

She hated it, the whole idea, of course. She blushed. At her foolishness, of course. 

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