XLIX.

She found herself at the insufficient dining table again, this time even more dreadful as unpleasant company far outnumbered the pleasant ones with the King and his general alongside several foolish aunts. And, as per tradition, the inhabitants of the table interrogated, now with her being the latest subject.

“Pardon me for my bluntness, Princess, but what exactly is the state of the Capital?” The King was done with monologues of forged gratitude for the Emperor’s daughter gracing them with her presence. “There are so many rumors, even I cannot say for certain what is going on.” His sisters muttered in giggled unison.

She wasn’t sure what was funny, started to explain, “Of course, the rebels –”

“ — Your Majesty cannot possibly expect the Princess to be knowledgeable of the state of affairs!” The General’s interruption earned him a deathly glare from Lyra though she was still ignored.

She muttered loud enough in a bitter fit after some thought, “Lord Astaroth is right, who am I to speak of such matters? Your Majesty may ask my father directly soon enough.”

Time froze, then at a gradual thaw the King chose his words, “Do you mean that your father meant to visit in the near future?”

She offered her most innocent smile, “Why yes, Father thought that if he didn’t warn you in advance he would spare you the bother of taking excessive measures of greeting him. He ought to be here this afternoon.”

Was this a test of loyalty all along? The King wiped away a cold sweat as he contemplated his unpreparedness and the Emperor’s reputation of cruel eccentricity. Disgusted that the mere mention of her father’s presence could command an amount of respect she would never earn from these man, Lyra excused herself from breakfast and the panicking royalties now rushing for last-minute preparations. She cursed her inevitable need to rely on that demon’s authority as the infinite voices threatened to swallow her whole.

She stormed down the corridor, made too many sharp turns in her blinding rage to avoid crashing into one equally distressed; she stumbled, he helped her up, “Horatio? Where were you earlier this morning? I had to suffer through — ” When she met his eyes, all complaints about insufferable relatives got lost in the oceans of empty despair that replaced the usual sparkles of determination, “Uncle, what’s wrong?”

He was so pale, his eyes flitted away from hers to settle on something more distant before he cleared his throat and forced a smile, “A…sleepless night. Have you…seen yo-your aunt?”

He stuttered, never in her life did she hear him stutter and she was in shock, “Are you certain that nothing is wrong?”

The silence was tortuous, but not as agonizing as the moment he finally tore his gaze away from gravity and spared a glance at her: a glimmer of infinite vulnerabilities was darkened by irrational fear as he briefly rubbed his eyes, “I am…so tired, Lyra, but…I will be fine. Have you seen your aunt anywhere?” She noted with terror the slight swelling of his eyes, struggled to identify that look and what could possibly make his iron resolve crumble in such a fashion.

“No, I haven’t…”

Lyra! She jolted.

What now, Alde?

Are you with your uncle?

How did you know? It’s unlike you read my mind or something, The fact that Alde did not chuckle at her sarcasm was doubly concerning. What’s wrong?

Athlem and I will meet you at the South Hall, and I will explain once we are there.

Alright, She turned to her uncle, found him regarding her with puzzlement so she explained, “Aldebaran just told me that he’s with Athlem and they intend to meet us at the South Hall.”

Horatio drew a painful breath, “So the Nokshan knows?”

Lyra knew he didn’t mean the whereabouts of her aunt, “I don’t know what the two of you meant to conceal, presumably the source of your current misery. It pains me to add to your sorrows, so I won’t ask anything any longer. But come, let’s go find Athlem.”

Horatio allowed himself to be led to the South Hall by the voice with the timbre of his older sister’s caring remonstrance, while Lyra attempted to brush aside the fear of something that rendered her uncle so. Then, as they made their way down a baroque corridor she recalled that look from her uncle’s face, the concoction of fear and pain and irrational guilt branded: she was but a child then, blissfully unaware as she ambushed Athlem at a corridor not unlike this one when the physician shoved her away. Feral fear, confusion, then slow remembrances of who she was and who Lyra was: by the time Athlem began to apologize, Lyra ran away, shocked. She later gathered enough information from the horrid whispers, failed to understand as a child, but now…

The banners and columns yielded to the spacious opening of their destination. Aldebaran and Athlem were already waiting for them. Lyra saw that Horatio had suddenly became extremely interested in the patterns of the rug while Aldebaran muttered an excuse for both him and Lyra to slip away. From the corner of the hall, she observed Athlem approaching her beloved, taking his earth-bound gaze and hand, exchanged a word or two before leading him away.

Her question awaited no longer, “So, what happened?”

Aldebaran began, carefully retelling Rosamund’s demonic deed, “The woman sank to quite unspeakable means for her selfish goal” was the understated conclusion.

Lyra paled, colored, and for a second, a look of murder made her an uncanny copy of her father, “That whore, I will make her regret the day she was conceived…”

“That wouldn’t exactly help your uncle or anyone.”

“I suppose…” He was right, but how could I help them? Lyra sought her calm, found none.

Then amongst the storm, amongst the despair clouding her mind, an idea came to fruition. She allowed it to manifest, to climb over the horizons.

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