LII.

Athlem recalled why she never acted upon impulses only seconds after she did: one such rash challenges rendered her here amidst the dark, wild forests where she provoked a dying campfire with a stick.

Days ago, she spoke without being prompted to, treating her life with the clinical objectivity no one expected from a new mother, “So be it.” Even Horatio could not stir her.

She had her reasons. She had just forced Lyra to stop employing the disguise after she caught her sneaking out of her room in the dead of the night for a breath from nightmares and “the voices.” Lyra already did so much, putting the Etzion King and the infinite whispers to their cowardly places; but as soon as “Emperor Luctus” quit Etzion, the general came back to with more of his devilish devices.

Twice, Jiube choked from poisons in her food — ever since her child was known to the world, the little thing became quite protective — and while toxins of the flesh were dodged, those of the mind and name were not. In some sick contortion of truths the general fabricated a tale of the night that Horatio still refused to speak to her about, but the fragment of words from nosy servants that assaulted her ears point to a version entirely opposite to the truth.

“Defiled her,” “innocent Rosamund,” They said. “Against her will,” “abusing power,” “her poor brother,” “devil in a prince’s disguise.”

Athlem broke the stick in her hand, casted into the pit of fire and proceeded to pick out the splinters she planted into her palm in the process. The fluffy owl sharing her log chair noticed her outburst, took that as a cue to scuttle away to find more sticks for her.

Horatio did not suffer in blind silence, of course, he appealed to his king brother for the removal of such a nuisance, but she judged from the way he slammed their chamber’s door that night the negotiations weren’t well, he was never prone to mistreat anything, doors included.

So, when the general came to them and issued the challenge, she took it.

“Solve the plague of the Southshores, oh great doctor,” the hellspawn taunted. “Should you succeed, I shall yield my title and let you deal with me as you please. Should you fail, the charges for witchcraft stands.”

“So be it,” She tested her unyielding defiance; Jiube was confused as to the comment pertaining to the dwarfish mountain of sticks it had accumulated by her feet or a symbolic character breakthrough.

She could only ruffle the tiny owl’s head affectionately, forgetting briefly about the demon of a general as she took another stick and probed the dancing flames and her thoughts until her beloved stuck his disheveled head out from their tent begging her for the fifth time that night to retreat from the biting cold of seasons and her meandering mind. This time she finally complied.

Unshackled by the concept of a nervous, concerned lover, Lyra had long left the circle of light casted by the humble campfire as it reminded her too much of a ruined village she and Alde strove to patch back together with care and lullabies and ladled soup. She eased herself into the harmonies of the darkness, having learned from the Nokshan how to tread lightly enough amongst nature’s congregation without interrupting the sweet hymns. These voices were better than the ones within her head, the gentle roars that increase the aches by each prolonged second she bore her father’s skin.

I am relying on him, she knew. A breath of night air did little to disperse that thought. The general was right, she had no business having knowledge or power. She stole them, just like Athlem, donned the appearance of a man so their voices would actually be heard. Now, they and those they love reaped the price of their theft, their pride, their desperation.

“But is that so wrong?” To be equal, to understand the desire to march out with civilizations, to help it march on.

The voices hinted at a different speech, she forced them to shush to a steady hum.

“So be it,” That voice from above was neither from nature nor her demons; its owner recycled a nugget of wise defiance his familiar had the privilege to witness.

“You startled me, dumb crow.”

“You are the one who randomly came by my perch and started mumbling aloud,” It was just the murmurs of the forests now, the tumults splitting her head died down.

She laughed, “Apologies, I didn’t see your nest there, dumb crow.”

“Ravens and crows are different.”

“And you are not disputing the ‘dumb’ part, then?” She dodged a chunk of bark. “Hey!”

He chuckled, stretched, “Go to sleep, Lyra, you have a campaign ahead of you.”

She sighed, perhaps one doesn’t need a lover to be fussed over, “You are right.” She muttered, her glance degenerated to a stare as she found his eyes peering down at her from his poise of perfect ease and elegance.

“Or would you rather share more of those ridiculous stories humans imprint upon the night skies?” She was tempted, but scoffed, “Then what of the whole ‘go to sleep’ ordeal? Also, it’s unlike Nokshan stories make any more sense than human ones.”

“Perhaps the essence is lost in translation,” A swoop of shadows, then he was beside her. “The stars are a lot more numerous than last time.” He was most persuasive, but her mouth contradicted herself.

“You just felt bad that you randomly quit me last time,” She shoved him aside jestingly, started picking her way back to camp. “Good night, dumb raven. Don’t fall out of your nest in your sleep.”

“As soon as you stop sleepwalking, sure,” He refuted, a little more bitter than usual. “Good night.”

She laughed to herself, found the fire but glowing embers and its keeper, the little owl, dozing. A scoff, some stirs, she fed the flames to sleep.

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