L.

Why was she smiling? He didn’t understand why he deserved that bright smile, or even just her presence at all. He didn’t understand the soft, gentle caresses at his cheeks that wiped away sorrows he didn’t know escaped him.

For a second, he didn’t understand how to breathe.

“Horatio, love,” She whispered. “May I have…a word?”

A word? He would give her any star in the universe if she liked, of course he nodded.

She took his hand, led him to the privacy of her meager chambers that served as a painful reminder of his powerlessness: he couldn’t even provide her with what she deserved merely for the maintenance of his prestige and the thin thread he tread upon with his family.

What good did that do him, anyway?

As she shut the door he scoffed at himself inwardly, collapsed into the nearest chair and the void of his mind. When he saw through his fingers raking through his disheveled thoughts and hair the familiar pair of sandals immediately before him, he scrambled out of his seat and words bubbled forth in disarray.

“No,” She shushed him, and he was afraid again; then her hands found their rightful places cupping his cheeks. “I understand.”

“Ath…”

She pulled him into an embrace, an ear pressed against the thrums of his heart, “I am sorry that I even doubted you at all.”

He attempted to convince himself that the silken locks at the tip of his fingers were not a figment of his imagination, that her delicate frame molding into him in her doting embrace was not an illusion he somehow casted in his foolish despair.

“I thought you…” If she believed him, who was he to not believe in her forgiveness? He coaxed his eyes shut, rested his chin upon her head and for the what felt like a first in a century, dared to breathe again.

Instead of choking perfumes or smog of propriety, herbs and salts and flowers tainted with tears came up to meet him. What did he do in his previous life to deserve her, he desired nothing but to remain like this forever.

But eventually, she pulled away, her hands clasped about his as she begun, “Horatio, I need to tell you, I am with — ”

At that the doors burst open as though the force behind it was eavesdropping the entire time, a slew of guards and soldiers and sorcerers poured forth to choke the breath out of the small room.

Behind them, the cold voice of the General commanded, “Arrest the witch.”

Horatio pulled the accused behind him, eyes narrowed in dangerous defiance, “Astaroth, what is the meaning of this?”

“There are considerable evidence that the wench hiding behind you is a witch,” The General said flatly. “Now, do not oppose the King’s orders and yield, Your Highness.”

“My brother issued the capture?” Horatio’s mind raced at the possibilities of how Athlem’s disguise was compromised and who would be vile enough to lay such false accusations though he already knew the answer. “If I do recall, my authority as Emperor Luctus’s Commander place me only beneath his Majesty and Grand Priest Claud. What does the words of the King of a tribute nation have upon me?”

“Your Highness is absolutely correct, though imagine what rebellious spirits the news of the Lunzeldine Commander misusing his powers to shield a witch for more than a decade would instill upon the good people of the Empire.”

He could only glare in return, for the General was right. What is his “authority” in the face of a culture taught to loathe and fear women superior to men, labeling intelligence and studies as “witchcraft”?

In his distraction, he missed the subtle jerk of the General’s hand: the soldiers moved forth. The closest, poor bastard of a guard didn’t even see the strike that sent him sprawling upon the floor, his sword stolen from the sheath. All swords in the room left their scabbards in one treacherous breath to trap the couple in a circle of deathly edges while Horatio’s measuring glare skidded from one dull mind behind each blade to another.

The General sneered, “That is an unwise decision, Your Highness.”

They were surrounded, but somehow the idea of beating some sense into these insubordinate, greedy bastards was calming to Horatio as he studied the rubbish sword he just confiscated. He felt Athlem shift behind him, grasped a sleeve.

“I will go with them, it’s fine,” Her whisper was as expected as his refusal of such an insane notion.

She took a few steps forward, putting herself just far enough from her protector to tempt the General himself to grasp at her, though the outstretched fingers were met by a clean, downward cut. Astaroth crumbled to the floor with an inhuman howl, writhed while his men closed around him and the offender. Horatio raised a haughty chin to accommodate the menacing blades now pressed against his throat. The severed digits rolled away and Athlem would have retched again had she not been too concerned by her beloved’s predicament.

Seeing no easier alternative, her voice surprised herself, “I will go with you.”

“Athlem, no,” Horatio dared a step, and a sword broke a bead of scarlet just below the hill of his throat; for too many times in the past hours he had felt so hopelessly powerless, and he stretched a discreet hand to conjure a deathly illusion despite the metal digging into his skin.

Led by two guards to be ripped from his sight, Athelm turned just in time for a final utterance, “You will prove it, won’t you?” She smiled, the escorts forced her along, swept out of the doors and to the cold cells beneath.

And just like that, the only light in the dark room of his captivity vanished, swept off by false claims to be executed. And he? He was nearly strong enough to not hide weakness with brute force and wrath and bloodshed.

Nearly.

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