XLIV.

Lyra wondered how the thin sliver of meat gently touched by fire accompanied by strands of vegetables arranged in a delicate garden smaller than her palm is supposed qualify as a feast. She calmed her empty stomach by testing the components with a fork.

“Is the dish not to your liking, Your Highness?” inquired an observant aunt.

“No, I am simply stunned by…the delicacy and craft of the plate.”

“You speak too highly of us,” The aunt was flattered. “This is nothing compared to the leftovers of your father’s table,” Silver and ceramic clinked on, and Lyra resumed glooming over inadequate portions while wondering miserably where Horatio and Athlem could be.

Aldebaran, on the other hand, was making his own observations with his plate as he contemplated if he should risk gathering more attention by asking for an alternative without meat; he already had his fair share of embarrassment when he struggled with the concept of chairs with a strange additions that he realized was useful for human backs — he had been too busy escaping death and such to notice — which of course, his wings refused to fit in. A glorified stool was brought to his rescue, and he was thoroughly mortified.

So with the dexterity of throwing a dart, he snatched the slice of meat and buried the thing under the table into Jiube’s waiting beaks: he was successful, only drawing the notice of Lyra as she chuckled at the owl’s satisfied hoot.

Jiube’s not a waste disposal.

He’s…multipurpose.

“Lord Aldebaran,” The Nokshan jerked a little thinking that he had been seen by the Queen all along. “Pardon me for intruding, but we are all overcome with curiosity: would you mind enlightening us to what your homeland is like? Are the legends accurate?”

It has larger portions of food, that’s one thing, and her laughter was staunched by the fact that she knew nothing of the man who shared her mind. She always assumed the topic of his hometown is taboo due to her vision of the massacre, so the openness of his explanation surprised her.

“It’s…heavenly, freed of most worries that plague mankind. Not exactly above the clouds, as some legends say. Not all of it at least.”

The general of Etzion by the name of Astaroth, whose presence at a royal family dinner confused Lyra, interjected, “Does the land have rulers like ours?”

“Yes,” Aldebaran’s gaze flicked to the man, who squirmed at the piercing light. “We have a King decided based on power and the Creator’s blessings so to prevent the drudgery of heredity.”

When an indirect challenge of power was so subtly stated, it was difficult to take offense until retrospect; instead, the King was intrigued, “So the current king, what type of man is he?”

Aldebaran smiled, “Our leader? He’s…not exactly qualified: the Creator made a blunder. He’s so helpless that the previous leader had to take over for him…now Lady Alvenia is truly a fitting leader.”

“If he is so inadequate,” The general continued. “Why wouldn’t your people overthrow him?”

“The Creator strikes them dead,” Aldebaran’s nonchalance was almost alarming. “Unless our leader is meant to be overthrown, then I suppose he’s the one that would be struck dead.”

While the general’s side of the table was in awe by the easy acceptance of such cruelty, the third princess was caught by the mention of a woman leader and interrogated the Nokshan about that instead while Lyra examined the venomous bitterness that he had for this Nokshan King. Could it be…

“Is she temperamental?”

“Why would she be?” Aldebaran was genuinely confused.

“Why, I just thought…because she’s…”

“She’s the most patient, kind and powerful Nokshan to have ever lived,” He mumbled. “Well…one of the most powerful…I mean, she put up with me, and that’s quite a feat –”

The Queen caught the line, too,  “And, she’s of what relation to you?” Lyra dreaded the answer she expected, and even a gulp of fine wine did little to wet her parched throat.

“She’s my mother,” He read his companion’s trepidation, initially didn’t understand; Lyra thought herself stupid and excused her previous panic.

“So that makes you –”

A harbinger announced the arrival of the second prince.

“Ah, brother, and I thought –”

“– Why on earth would you arrange for a guest to be next to the stables?” The restraint in his voice cracked, the smile upon his face too forced.

“It was the only vacancy in the servant’s wing — ”

“– How many times must I tell you that Athlem is no servant?” He ran an exasperated hand through his hair, noticed his childishness along with General Astaroth’s presence: being Horatio, he brushed the former aside as he deduced the reason behind the presence of the latter. “General Astaroth.”

“Lord Horatio, pleasure to see you well,” Horatio gestured for the man to sit, though he himself was not compelled to near his relations.

“The same to you, General. How’s Rosamund?”

“She has been in great spirits ever since the engagement: you are certainly too good for her, My Lord,” The General bowed his head.

“You would be correct,” Horatio remained unrepentant despite the looks of horror upon his family’s faces at his blatant arrogance; Lyra guessed that the strategy was being as disagreeable and unmarriageable as possible.

With a raised chin, he continued sarcastically, “Apologies for my temper, your servant had overstepped his bounds and strayed from his original mission of informing Your Majesty that he is to go back to the stables as he belonged.”

“Horatio, don’t be like that –”

As abruptly as he came, he left with a low bow, and the last glare at the General was almost enough to kill.

The silence was unpleasant and Jiube warded it off with a loud series of hoots. Instead of rebuking it as per usual, Aldebaran surprised Lyra with a hearty laugh she never heard him conjure.

“Yes, I agree,” He petted furball’s pointed head. “Humans. What can I say?”

 

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