XLIII.

Had they been at home, Athlem would be more worried about Lyra’s infatuation. But life was different: the Emperor is gone, Horatio’s crippled, they are wanted criminals…having something as innocent as “first love” around was a luxury she would not deny.

Oh and also, they have arrived at Etzion, and that itself is worrisome enough.

She hated Etzion as much as she loved Horatio for four reasons. Firstly, Horatio was the second prince following the current king and a line of seven sisters: in short, Athlem understood why Horatio would not think twice before escaping Etzion with his only tolerable sister years ago. Secondly, Horatio’s apparent bachelorhood led to every visit becoming an interrogation, surprise arranged marriages or an abominable combination of both. Thirdly, while the sisters were by no means pleasant, they were not blind: they realized that their little brother was attached to this doctor. Of course they were scandalized, but not because that an Etzion prince shouldn’t have a male lover — for that was tolerable — but the fact that it was with a peasant that rose through the ranks by “merit.”

“God forbid, brother,” Athlem recalled an eavesdropped conversation. “Who knows how many men this so-called doctor had seduced for his position. At least prostitutes have the decency of not pretending to be blameless.”

Of course, she was enraged, though Horatio’s reply was enough retribution for her, “It sickens me that you should assume others deploy your own methods, almost as sickening as the sight of that face of yours.” He always knew what one valued the most and would hurt most; the gasp from the sister was more than enough proof. “I believe I have a meeting with your husband with regards to some trade, perhaps I should mention yours.”

Still, despite Horatio’s defense, there won’t be a day when she could walk down the Etzion palace without the company of whispers. She thought of solutions, but none of them were feasible: revealing her disguise would do very little to recommend her beside adding an accusation of witchcraft.

She sighed, perhaps too loudly, for the arm about her shifted and the breath tingling her ear whispered, “What’s wrong, my peony?”

She scoffed at the unfitting nickname and Horatio’s stubbornness for keeping it, for regardless of how much she loved the flower she thought she was nothing nearly as beautiful, “Nothing…” She shifted in his arm to meet his sleepy eyes.

“They are not worthy of your worries,” He muttered.

“I know…there are also other things…”

“You still think that I would fall for some vixen they throw in my way?” Horatio brushed her doubt along with a wayward strand of hair from her eyes.
Athlem scoffed, unwilling to admit her doubts, “You’ve been unaffected for so long, so why would you change now?” She leaned into his gentle hand against her cheek, sighed.

Fourth and lastly, there was so little time like this when they are in Etzion. She was bound to the lesser wings for servants despite Horatio’s protest, and at some point she was so tired of the troublesome confrontations she just begged Horatio to go with whatever the king said. Horatio relented.

Tracing the faint creases of time upon his visage, she was distracted by the sharp lines of his jaw, the chin, then pressed herself closer, outlined the collarbone, the hard chest. His hand retreated to lazily untangle her sleep-knotted hair.

“What if we have to live there forever.”

“Hmm…” His touch traveled down her slender neck, the nape, traced the spine and drew distorted circles. “We won’t.”

“Where else would we go then?” She looked up at him, and he planted his lips firmly upon her forehead; she thought her giggles stupid. “Answer my question!”

“We can go to Amzra,” He mumbled against her cheek, “Thenaz,” His kisses traced her jaw, “or…Elsinore.” He savored the tender curve of her neck; she squirmed, sighed. “It doesn’t matter…” For she was his world, his lips and touch travelers fervent to seek, to please.

“As long as I’m with you.”

She pretended to hate his bluntness, seized a handful of his hair, stole his lips for hers before resigning to oblivion.

*******

When they arrived at the King of Etzion’s court weeks later, Lyra observed that the man was Horatio’s image in a distorted mirror. There was a semblance of the two being related, but the King’s loudness and poor taste distinguished the two. When he first saw them he raised a yelp of pleasant surprise, raised hell over Horatio’s missing arm, raised hell over Lyra being so much like her father, ignored the doctor, and was thoroughly confused by the Nokshan and opted to stay away when Jiube let out an angry squawk.

“And I thought you were dead!” He laughed as though the idea was comedic. “Of course our clever Horatio figured out a way.”

“You certain had a lot of faith in me, brother.”

The King excused the comment with a wave, shifted his attention to his niece, “Dear girl, the last time I saw you, you were but a tiny babe. Who knew you would turn out like this?”

I do not look like my father.

Alde assured her, You don’t.

The queen with her motherly facade saved them, “My Lord, I am sure His Highness is exhausted from travel.”

The King took the hint, bid them goodnight. Servants directed them to their respective rooms, Lyra’s being a good enough shadow of her home in the palace. She threw herself upon the soft mattress without even undressing, sighed.

“Your Highness, a bath has been drawn for you.”

“Ah, thank you,” She quickly undressed, sank into the warm water dotted by peony petals and sighed as it lapped away the tensions of her locked tendons, succumbing to the flowers’ coaxing her senses to relax.

Her mind wanted to wander, but she shut it down, and just for a moment she was as mindless as the water vapors around her.

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