LI.

Lyra never understood the different merits of parting one’s hair in one way or the other, so when her third aunt preached on about the grand significance of such details the princess nodded more to sleep than in agreement. She was going to survey the throneroom with Aldebaran to prepare for her disguise when they had the misfortune of meeting her aunt at the main hallway; after a good hour of reprimanding Lyra for “wasting youthful potential,” the older woman turned to survey the Nokshan on the matter.

She took that chance to march into the throneroom, paid her respects to the King, then went on her way to number of entrances within the baroque space.

She was acknowledging the salute of a captain when one of the many doors gave way to a silhouette of composed madness, the latter quality betrayed only by the fact that the man single-handedly hauled in another by a fistful of blood-matted hair.

Horatio bowed with perfect posture, “Your Majesty, a report on a case of treason.”

Lyra knew better than to interfere when he wore such a forced smile; the captain beside her stiffened upon recognizing the mess of a man Horatio dragged in, “General Astaroth!”

The General had been tossed to the King’s feet, a groveling shadow clutching at his bloody stub of a hand.

“Oh brother, what have you done?” The King descended from his throne to help who he naively presumed to still be his brother-in-law. “What would Rosamund think?”

Lyra cringed, Horatio stiffened, a hand shot to his aching temple, “You are almost as good a jester as you are a King, brother. Now, where’s Athlem.”

“Horatio, you are under her control!”

Lyra marked the sorcerers and soldiers that poured into the throneroom. Amongst the mess, Aldebaran had escaped from the aunt and caught onto news dropped by passing maids.

Lyra, they’ve captured Athlem on charges of witchcraft.

As I thought, she slipped away, found an obscured passageway. Keep watch for me.

Already are.

She took a deep breath, muttered the deceptive spell and it engulfed her.

*******

Horatio knew the words at the tip of her tongue when the guards barged in, he read her affectionate hand at her abdomen, but he didn’t…Not now…he was going to…she is…, “Release her.”

“Horatio, come to your senses.”

“She is no witch, now release her.”

“You are under her influence — ”

“ — An attack upon an imperial officer is treason, indeed,” The cold voice echoed across the hushing hall. “My dear brother Horatio, how are you?”

The King lost his color at the new intruder, all fell to a grovel in uncanny unison, “Long Live the Emperor.”

Luctus’s eyes flitted over the bowing masses, “Horatio, what is this?”

Horatio shamed himself for having to rely on his niece, “Your Majesty, they pressed charges against your servant Athlem and planned to execute the doctor.”

“Your Majesty, I can explain — ”

“ — And were you asked to?” The King cowered, Luctus scoffed. “Bring out the doctor, please.”

Guards were dispatched, the King’s pleas now given ear, “Your Majesty, we cannot let a witch live, it’s –”

“– What made you think Athlem could be a witch?” Luctus found a convenient chair, still not bothering to let his subjects rise.

Having bounded his hand and arrogance, Astaroth dared, “My sister’s servants chanced upon the discovery of the doctor’s true sex; there were also herbs and instruments unknown to the best physicians of Etzion along with a vial of blood in the Doctor’s study, probably to curse –”

“Is your common sense where your fingers are?” Luctus cut off the presumptuous narrative. “So, just because my court doctor is a woman and is in possession of greater knowledge than your physicians, she is a witch? Intriguing.”

“She cannot be a witch,” A new voice joined the fray, the only standing figure protected from scrutiny by his midnight wings.

Lyra was briefly distracted by the flutter of movement at the door when the bounded doctor was escorted in, her neat braids undone and her cascade of grace and hair hiding her grievances.

“Aldebaran,” Lyra turned her attention back to the Nokshan. “Great of you to join us.”

He nodded, continued his point, “By your human laws and descriptions, a witch is infertile.”

Horatio bowed to the floor, Athlem glared at the General, Lyra buried her excitement under a smirk while Aldebaran finished his thought, “And that description, Doctor Denthea fails.”

The court died to quieter silence, the implications pried apart.

“Please,” The choked plea could hardly be registered as the same madman who threw the General of Etzion into the throneroom moments ago. “Just let her be.” The court was still.

Lyra snapped awake, “You fools, release the doctor this instant.”

A guard miraculously cut the ropes in a panicked fumble, and Athlem instinctively threw herself into her beloved’s awaiting arm.

“Conception outside of the union of marriage is a grave crime,” Blind rage made Rosamund foolishly brave, emerging from the wave of scandalized murmurs.

“Your Prince Horatio’s frugalness and humility thought an insignificant ceremony sufficed, and for the sake of preserving his beloved’s reputation and career kept the union secret. Is that wrong?” Lyra turned to the cursed woman, smiled to contradict the hellish fiery.

“There is no proof of it,” Rosamund screeched, Athlem’s hold upon her beloved tightened.

“I was present, woman,” Luctus rose in a clap of fury. “Do you question the authority of your Emperor?”

“No…your Majesty…I…”

Lyra chuckled, “Questioning your sovereign equivalates treason. Now, that is a grave sin, is it not, General Astaroth?”

Seeing that his sister had lost her chance, the General only nodded his agreement before bowing lower.

“Brother, how could you…” Guards shifted to seize her instead, and she puffed, bit her painted lips and was led forever out of glory.

Luctus turned to face his subjects, an innocent smile upon his flawless facade, “Now that’s all dealt with, shall we dine? I am famished.”

Aldebaran choked back a laugh.

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