XLVIII.

Life is a nightmare. An ugly one, and there was no end to it.Well, if one is brave enough to cross the threshold of the unknown, employ the instruments of self-destruction…

But no, not her. Her life was no longer her own…anyhow, when had the trek from one wing of the palace to the other always been so long? Her head was too light, and she felt the familiar crept of bile that had been loyally ruining her mornings for the past week. She still couldn’t breath, unwilling to accept anything, including air.

Miraculously she tumbled into her room in time to vomit the gruel that she could stomach from dinner in all its entirety into the nearest empty cauldron. She was exhausted. Still, she had to work. Washing out the acid burning her throat and throwing open all the windows — an act acceptable now that she was no longer next to the stables — she threw herself at her dressing-table-converted work station lined with instruments and herb and began to think: poisons, paralyzers. She marked the texture of the blood, tried to forget its owner, recorded its color, its properties. She realized she needed a certain seedling for her test…perhaps it could be replaced with…no. Nothing reacted. Normal red, why? She could use the crystallized form of…having something similar…having something…she thought she did. She thought she had Horatio.

No, she didn’t.

She was dizzy again, though she forced herself to continue. Where was she? Yes, to replace the seedling, and…still nothing, still she thought she meant something. No, no time for that, only time for truth and grounded facts. Proof, for his innocence…perhaps she could heat up the mixture, excite the molecules to exhibit a change, or —

A mindless hand knocked over a stray empty vial, she cursed, reached out to catch it but only succeeded in burning herself as her distressed mind rendered her as dangerously disorganized as her mentor.

The vial crashed against the marble floors, shattered. The impact toppled the last column that held up her mind. It was over, she fell to her knees, too indignant to pray, too hurt to make a noise even when her hand cut itself against the scattered shards.

Why? What did she do wrong?

She was wrong to think that she was excluded from his ambition: the position of second prince must have been irresistible now that the Emperor was not there to back him, and a woman as beautiful and powerful as Rosamund? God, she could almost be happy for him, she would convince herself to be; but he looked so broken, so torn.

Did she wrong him?

He wronged her. She curled her hand into a fist, embraced the searing pain of the infinite cuts in her palm and the bright red oozing through her fingers, a wayward droplet painted the white floor scarlet and she watched the beautiful tendrils bloom into a withered flower. She watched the rays of sunshine crash and bounce from the massacre of glass through the blur of her tears, saw the infinite rays of rainbows broken into pieces like the promises so often whispered against her stubborn ear.

“What if…he was telling the truth,” She reasoned aloud, then the instruments of her knowledge would be reduced to symbols of distrust, both of him and her own worth.

Does that mean…he was…

A gentle rapping cleared the darkening air. She looked up, saw the shadow at the window and summoned her best smile when she opened and greeted her visitor, “Are doors a strictly human concept?”

“Apologies, it’s a matter of urgency,” The Nokshan landed gracefully, his eyes fell upon the mess upon the floor and her bleeding hand.

“I was experimenting when I accidentally knocked things over,” She bounded her hands, sniffed the air, remembered the herb that was now burning at the bottom of the ceramic dish, rushed to extinguish the flame. “God…why are you here, Aldebaran.”

“A word of what happened last night.” 

She froze, knew that he knew but attacked instead, “What did you do to Lyra?” She folded her arms in feigned remonstrance to hide her shaking.

It took him an entire minute to understand and blush and stammer, “What..no, we…were just watching stars…I…that’s not what…”

God, this child was so adorable, she almost smiled.

Aldebaran cleared his throat and mind, “I came here because I heard a voice during my conversation with Lyra, a voice begging for death.”

“I am not sure if I can diagnosing mental ailments of Nokshans,” She strode over to another window. What if…Horatio was…no, he cheated. He had to.

“Hearing voices is the normal part, Athlem, I am constantly hearing the spirits around me,” Athlem took back what she said about son-in-law; Lyra deserved someone normal for once. “The owner of that voice is what I am here for.”

“Who?”

“It was Horatio.”

Of course.

She knew it. She only wanted to test his blood and pretend that she was the one to be hurt, that she was simply betrayed and that was all and he wasn’t…he didn’t have to experience what she suffered, to be rendered so powerless, felt so dirtied.

But…in her denial she left him alone.

She choked on her breath, her selfishness, her unwillingness to trust, to understand…who was she to strand him on his own with his demon, with her… “I have to find him, I must tell him…” that I am sorry, sorry to have even questioned him, to have left him alone.

Aldebaran glanced at the cauldron at the corner of the room, back to linger a little upon her stomach, thought about speaking but thought otherwise.

“Do you know where he is?” She gathered herself together, the Nokshan nodded. “Take me to him.”

The Nokshan smiled, glad that he had stopped a spirit in its downward spiral before it was too late, “Alright.”

XLVII.

The blinding rays of sunlight from the windows did not help the drums in his skull. Then an observation, alarm: his chamber did not have such a span of windows. Nor were the curtains pink.

A part of him already knew where he was and the excruciating memories spilled forth from that spot. He gasped, sat up too suddenly. Dread, shame, a search for his tunic, trembling.

“You are finally awake,” The demoness poised before her dressing table, spoke into the mirror at his reflection as she brought her hair in all arrangements of ugly.

“You,” His voice was but a pathetic croak. “How could you…do such a thing to anyone?”

“Dearest,” She finally decided upon a side for her mane, and Horatio only wanted to rip each strand from its roots as insufficient revenge. “I am sorry for your discomfort, I’ve already sent for a doctor. But, I would not had to do this had you been –” She drew out the word to leave space for him to remember every agonizing detail, “– willing.”

His legs refused to budge. “Monster.”

You are the monster, Horatio,” She hissed, turning from the mirror to face him. “You left me.”

He was unwilling to admit the way his hand trembled in fear as she approached him; powerless, his mind drifted inevitably to her, and his heart stopped.

God no, nono, nonono.

Rosamond read his horror as she smiled, “Soon enough even your beloved would know that you are the monster.”

“Athlem would believe me,” His mind stated firm faith aloud, though another voice questioned: why should she? I am defiled, willingly or not I’ve shared a bed with another. Just saying her name was blasphemous. He was unworthy of it.

Of her.

At that a gentle rapping made Horatio curse his unmoving body more as Rosamond explained, “It’s probably just the doctor.”

Good, he thought, it is much easier to dispose of a hired servant. Then it dawned upon him, “No you can’t, you will kill me.”

“Don’t be silly, my dear,” Rosamond teased with forged innocence with a hand on the handle, “It’s just the doctor.”

There was no escape. His underestimation of Rosamond’s insanity ruined him. The handle turned, mahogany yielded, and he was frozen as his life fell apart the moment the visitor stepped into the room, drowning.

Her hair was plaited beneath her usual cap saved for the strands left out to give an illusion of a cropped look: she insisted to keep it long despite the trouble since they both loved it when he ran his hand through it. She drowned herself in the blue tunic she stole from him when they were much younger, loose enough to render her frame masculine. These things seemed like a Saint’s relic, buried him alive.

Athlem bowed to the noble woman with cold civility. Then the sun and moon of his sky fell upon him: he had no choice but to watch the odd-colored depths widen and water. She drew a sharp breath. Shock, confusion, denial.

Betrayal.

She was the one to tear her eyes down over the crumpled sheets and floor of discarded clothes, remembered to gasp for breath.

Rosamond watched the wordless exchanged with pretended obliviousness, “Apologies to bother you, Doctor Denthea, but I was wondering if you could examine my lip,” In a desperate search of distraction, Athlem crossed the room and turned her back to him as she saw to the small cut on the woman’s lower lip. “I told you to be gentle, Horatio,” the noble purred.

He couldn’t hear Rosamond, his ears rung. Athlem was deathly quiet, turning to her case of medicine as she took a glass of water sprinkled with a fine crystal for the lady, “Flush with this.”

“What is this?”

“Salt to disinfect your injury. Is that all you called me here for?” To add salt to my injury? He heard the unspoken line and it stung.

“Athlem,” His tongue finally decided to work; Rosamond grinned and left for the bath with the salt water. “Please, I –” Her shoulders tensed at his voice, so broken, so eager for understanding; words caught again when she turned to face him, her eyes nailed to the floor to measure the distance between them.

What could he say to redeem himself? The truth, but he refused to relive the nightmare.

“Does Your Highness feel ill? Pray tell,” Athlem muttered to the rug.

“Athlem…” And he thought he was in pain before.

“Pray. tell.” She gnashed her teeth.

Then he saw the line of silver drawing its track down her cheek. What can he do? The truth, she had to hear it from him.

“I was…drugged, Athlem, I was leaving the meeting when she stabbed me with something in the neck and I…” He still couldn’t bring himself to retell it, everything ached.

Athlem made her way to him, tilted his chin and sharply turned it from one side then the other to examine his neck to corroborate with his story, “What did you feel?”

Shame, humiliation, fear? “Numbness…and I couldn’t move.”

“Approximately what hour was it when you were ‘drugged’ as you said?”

“I…don’t remember…there were multiple…ministrations,” He flinched away, disgust crept up his throat.

A thought passed by her eyes, but she drew from her bag a small dagger instead.

“Ath?” She unsheathed it, grabbed his arm; he winced at her forceful contact, “I can’t…tell you the full truth. It’s too…” filthy.

She drew a thin line across his wrist with the blade, collected the few droplets that surfaced in a vile before bandaging the insignificant  cut, “Some vixen they throw in your way, huh?”

“Athlem –”

She took her bag, bid, “Good day to you, Your Highness,” before slamming the door, disappeared.

“Good day indeed,” Horatio would’ve strangled Rosamond for her retort had he not been deaf, his bandaged hand grasped at thin air as he drowned in his own filth and the end of his world.

XLVI.

She wondered how the moon feels, having its pallor and scars so often written of and personified by men. Would the moon find civilization’s imaginations laughable?

Interesting enough, the man seated next to her upon this sturdy branch they shared was in a similar predicament as the moon. He almost looked happy watching the twinkle of stars while the faint murmurs of crickets buried the sound of his dagger skinning a pear from the bag of fruits they stole since the dinner was but a glorified appetizer. Jiube perched by with eyes brighten by promise of food.

“I never knew your mother ruled the Nokshans,” She ventured.

“You never asked since you are considerate.” He understood her reservations.

“Well, not interrogating others about their family is not as much of being ‘considerate’ as it is having basic manners,” She dangled her feet, amused by the heights.

“Do you have more questions, then?” He handed her the first pear along with the right to satisfy her curiosity. “I don’t mind if it’s just you.”

She tried not to think too deeply into the statement, “Just one major question.”

“Mhmm.”

“Are you the Nokshan ruler?”

Jiube choked on a pear peel, “Ha.” He commented either to her inquiry or Jiube’s reaction. “What makes you think that?”

“I don’t know, you just seemed unusually bitter when speaking of him.”

“Are you saying I am prone to self-loathing?” He chuckled. “But yes, you are right.”

“…” Lyra attempted to process the implications: why is he here? What’s a king’s business knowing how to cook? Oh God, she stabbed the Nokshan ruler once, she will be killed. Only one question escaped her, “But, you left your realm…”

“Exactly,” He offered the second pear to Jiube: the bird preferred its eat peels and fruit separate. “You must be very disappointed: if the Nokshan ruler is as weak as I, then our race must be made of fleas.”

“You are not weak,” She protested.

“Then you truly don’t know Nokshans, then,” He looked beyond the stars, absent-minded. “I am the successor who had yet to accept the power reserved for a lord.”

“Is that because your mother is still in power?”

“I suppose…If I accept my position, I will know the Creator’s will for all the spirits in the world and have control over all of them.”

Lyra blinked, her mind unable to imagine such a power, “And why did you refuse to take it?”

“My incompetence, of course,” He laughed, petting a Jiube dismayed by his self-deprecation. “There can only be one lord in this world.”

Lyra deciphered the euphemism, “Your mother must die?”

“Yes, the Creator planned for her death few decades ago, but my father interfered…” His eyes were distant. “You saw the…incident. I told you, we couldn’t hear the Creator’s voice since then…”

She recalled a distant conversation by the fire, nodded, “What is to happen with your people then?”

“We don’t know,” He didn’t point out that her “one major question” had devolved into a series. “I don’t even know how to read this tangled web of fates now that a crucial point had been severed…And…I don’t want the power.”

She merely cocked her head.

“If it meant that I would be compelled to do what my mother did, left her beloved to die,” He looked down at his hands, recalling the way his father’s blood colored them as he held the severed head, clenched them into white fists to erase the image. “When a Nokshan find their mate, it’s an union of the spirit of eternity. Why is there a power to overlook such a thing?”

So, he couldn’t take the power because of love? No, his father. He still…when his eyes met hers, she had to snap away before she could tell if the depths were merely reflecting the twinkle of stars: it took all her strength to not pull him into an embrace, cradle that messy of hair soft as down against her heart to promise that the organ’s steady drum meant she would protect him from that nightmare with her life. He read her slightly parted lips, clenched his jaws and tore his gaze away.

“I shouldn’t have said so much.”

“No, I needed to understand,” She mumbled. “Thank you…you are very brave for telling me.”

“‘Brave,’” He scoffed at the idea, his focus drifted off to the stars, and for the first time in their acquaintance a moment of awkwardness passed.

“I cannot say that I could imagine the ‘spiritual union’ between Nokshans,” Her mouth spoke without her mind’s consent. “My parents hardly even agree to the union of formality, much less that of the spirit. I wouldn’t call their relationship an ‘union’ as much as a curse. He…” She choked.

“You don’t have to tell me,” She felt his gaze upon her as she brushed off a traitorous tear.

He continued, “While Nokshans recognize their intended from their spirits and aura, it’s much harder for humans, though some rare cases are successful,” He offered. “Your uncle, for example.”

A concoction of joy and pride warmed her, “I know.” Perhaps it was the pale blue beginning to illuminate the edge of the horizon or her fatigue that made her tired, reckless, “Have you find yours?” The foolish bluntness killed her now, but her foolish audacity made her look up at his silent gaze.

She saw words resurface and die at the edge of his tongue, a pause, “I cannot answer that question, Lyra, I don’t know.” He quickly added, “It’s quite late, you ought to get some rest.”

“Yes,” She cursed herself for ruining a perfectly good moment with her curiosity.

The damned thing would kill her one day.

When she threw herself onto her bed and prayed for sleep to engulf her thoughts her prayers weren’t answered: her stares bore holes into the pale white ceiling, her head throbbed while the sun rose to a day of troubles ahead of her.

XLV.

Athlem won. She always wins, Horatio muttered in mild annoyance: it was just…the logical part of him is ripped off from its roots whenever his beloved is concerned, especially when she is humiliated by his own kin.

He turned a corner, traced with dismay the distant figures congregating by the illumination of torches and a clear moon upon the west side balcony: the King, his queen, General Astaroth and his sister, Rosamund. Horatio reminded himself to not snap; Please, the voice of his peony gently requested. I don’t want you to spite your family on my accord.

He sighed, begrudgingly he made his way to unpleasant company.

The Queen greeted him in her usual composure, “Glad for you to join us, Horatio. I am sure you are familiar with Rosamund,” Unfortunately yes, the fact that his betrothed is Rosamund this time only complicate the affair.

From the way Rosamund blushed at this introduction, he judged that his words from the dinner did not fall upon her ears.

After some pointless chatter Astaroth offered an opportunity, “Perhaps we should leave the two of you. It has been years since you’ve returned.”

Horatio was adamantly against it, but found himself alone with the woman by the King’s acquiescence regardless. Suddenly, the balcony felt too small as he paced to the other side, a hand gripped the marble rail.

“You never struck me as one for arranged marriages, Rosa,” The critters of the dark continued their haphazard harmony.

“Perhaps I’ve changed,” The clacks of her heels signaled her approach, and he tensed at the vinegar of her voice. “Perhaps…having my only friend abandon me changed me.”

“I merely chose to aid a sister who would be alone in an alien land,” It was still difficult to bring himself to be too harsh with Rosamund, whose eyes brightened with tears; his tone softened. “You will never find happiness with me, Rosa. I am sure you are aware — ”

“ — Of Athlem?” The disgust that overcame her tear-stained face surprised Horatio. “Is he the only obstacle? I am sure we can rid –”

“ — No,” Horatio surprised himself with the volume of his voice, and only then did he realize that he was utterly alone with this parody of his childhood friend as he scanned the environment for potential snitches at his less-than-proper behavior: where are the servants? He found this an opportunity for hearsay and subtly made for the doors. “No Rosa, you don’t understand. I simply cannot bring myself to love anyone else.” There is no Horatio without Athlem, and he knew the reverse is as sure as each sunrise.

The woman’s eyes widened at the rejection: she bowed her head as though the shame was too heavy before she looked up with renewed rage. The turn of her expressions could only be described as the tumultuous churn of the clouds when the sun sets, a violent violet and ringlets of scarlet and a gloomy bloom of orange, “You deemed me a creature beyond understanding,” She spat. “Do you still think I am still the little girl following you everywhere like a lost puppy?”

“ — Rosa, I never said –”

“ — I’ve waited, years after years, and not even a letter came,” She seized his tunic, wrenched him down to her height with the strength of wrath. “Then you came back with this ‘doctor’ of yours, and you didn’t even spare a glance for me!”

“Rosamund…but I never saw you in that light…”

“Do you know what I had to do for them to let me be your bride-to-be? I went against my family, my values, my everything,” Her hiss of a voice died to a begging gasp. “I love you, Horatio. I always did and always will. So don’t, don’t tell me that I don’t understand…”

It was difficult to pry her fingers from him with a single hand, and when he finally struggled free he fought the urge to walk away and turn his back to this mess forever, “I am sorry, but I simply cannot see you as anything but a sister.”

She was incredulous: should a man be able to refuse her anything when she so passionately begged? The light of her disposition drew closer beneath the horizon and the dark shadow casted by the taller trees of the palace gardens clouded her, “Do you despise me so much?”

Hearing no reply, she raised her chin, “Very well,” she turned and mounted the railing of the balcony.

“Rosa, stop!” He cursed his instincts as he grabbed her by her arm and dragged her off the ledge.

She knew he would save her, and the accuracy of her predication fed her twisted sense of importance and love; she knew, as the brief moment of intimacy allowed her to grab him by his hair and smash her lips to his.

The forceful contact shocked him, and he gagged, didn’t know that he struck her until he felt the sting in his hand, which then flew for his lips, “You,” He breathed, the woman sprawled on the floor gasped at her bleeding lip before looking up at Horatio. “How dare you,” defile a kiss so solely reserved for his beloved.

She spat, returning Horatio’s deathly glare, “You just don’t see it, the peasant doesn’t deserve you.”

His blood boiled, his hand itched to repeat its deed but his mind pulled at him to leave this psychotic thing, “No, the only one undeserving here is you.” He snapped around for his own chambers, for he had no intention of meeting Athlem in such a foul mood.

But, he only made a few steps before a loud hiss and a sudden grip seized him by the neck, and a pang erupted there.

Then it was a numbness, a faint tingling of agony that felled him to his knees, “You…what did you…” His body refused to move, he couldn’t even feel it.

“You left me with no options, Horatio.”

The sun was gone and all was in darkness.

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?”

 

XLIII.

Had they been at home, Athlem would be more worried about Lyra’s infatuation. But life was different: the Emperor is gone, Horatio’s crippled, they are wanted criminals…having something as innocent as “first love” around was a luxury she would not deny.

Oh and also, they have arrived at Etzion, and that itself is worrisome enough.

She hated Etzion as much as she loved Horatio for four reasons. Firstly, Horatio was the second prince following the current king and a line of seven sisters: in short, Athlem understood why Horatio would not think twice before escaping Etzion with his only tolerable sister years ago. Secondly, Horatio’s apparent bachelorhood led to every visit becoming an interrogation, surprise arranged marriages or an abominable combination of both. Thirdly, while the sisters were by no means pleasant, they were not blind: they realized that their little brother was attached to this doctor. Of course they were scandalized, but not because that an Etzion prince shouldn’t have a male lover — for that was tolerable — but the fact that it was with a peasant that rose through the ranks by “merit.”

“God forbid, brother,” Athlem recalled an eavesdropped conversation. “Who knows how many men this so-called doctor had seduced for his position. At least prostitutes have the decency of not pretending to be blameless.”

Of course, she was enraged, though Horatio’s reply was enough retribution for her, “It sickens me that you should assume others deploy your own methods, almost as sickening as the sight of that face of yours.” He always knew what one valued the most and would hurt most; the gasp from the sister was more than enough proof. “I believe I have a meeting with your husband with regards to some trade, perhaps I should mention yours.”

Still, despite Horatio’s defense, there won’t be a day when she could walk down the Etzion palace without the company of whispers. She thought of solutions, but none of them were feasible: revealing her disguise would do very little to recommend her beside adding an accusation of witchcraft.

She sighed, perhaps too loudly, for the arm about her shifted and the breath tingling her ear whispered, “What’s wrong, my peony?”

She scoffed at the unfitting nickname and Horatio’s stubbornness for keeping it, for regardless of how much she loved the flower she thought she was nothing nearly as beautiful, “Nothing…” She shifted in his arm to meet his sleepy eyes.

“They are not worthy of your worries,” He muttered.

“I know…there are also other things…”

“You still think that I would fall for some vixen they throw in my way?” Horatio brushed her doubt along with a wayward strand of hair from her eyes.
Athlem scoffed, unwilling to admit her doubts, “You’ve been unaffected for so long, so why would you change now?” She leaned into his gentle hand against her cheek, sighed.

Fourth and lastly, there was so little time like this when they are in Etzion. She was bound to the lesser wings for servants despite Horatio’s protest, and at some point she was so tired of the troublesome confrontations she just begged Horatio to go with whatever the king said. Horatio relented.

Tracing the faint creases of time upon his visage, she was distracted by the sharp lines of his jaw, the chin, then pressed herself closer, outlined the collarbone, the hard chest. His hand retreated to lazily untangle her sleep-knotted hair.

“What if we have to live there forever.”

“Hmm…” His touch traveled down her slender neck, the nape, traced the spine and drew distorted circles. “We won’t.”

“Where else would we go then?” She looked up at him, and he planted his lips firmly upon her forehead; she thought her giggles stupid. “Answer my question!”

“We can go to Amzra,” He mumbled against her cheek, “Thenaz,” His kisses traced her jaw, “or…Elsinore.” He savored the tender curve of her neck; she squirmed, sighed. “It doesn’t matter…” For she was his world, his lips and touch travelers fervent to seek, to please.

“As long as I’m with you.”

She pretended to hate his bluntness, seized a handful of his hair, stole his lips for hers before resigning to oblivion.

*******

When they arrived at the King of Etzion’s court weeks later, Lyra observed that the man was Horatio’s image in a distorted mirror. There was a semblance of the two being related, but the King’s loudness and poor taste distinguished the two. When he first saw them he raised a yelp of pleasant surprise, raised hell over Horatio’s missing arm, raised hell over Lyra being so much like her father, ignored the doctor, and was thoroughly confused by the Nokshan and opted to stay away when Jiube let out an angry squawk.

“And I thought you were dead!” He laughed as though the idea was comedic. “Of course our clever Horatio figured out a way.”

“You certain had a lot of faith in me, brother.”

The King excused the comment with a wave, shifted his attention to his niece, “Dear girl, the last time I saw you, you were but a tiny babe. Who knew you would turn out like this?”

I do not look like my father.

Alde assured her, You don’t.

The queen with her motherly facade saved them, “My Lord, I am sure His Highness is exhausted from travel.”

The King took the hint, bid them goodnight. Servants directed them to their respective rooms, Lyra’s being a good enough shadow of her home in the palace. She threw herself upon the soft mattress without even undressing, sighed.

“Your Highness, a bath has been drawn for you.”

“Ah, thank you,” She quickly undressed, sank into the warm water dotted by peony petals and sighed as it lapped away the tensions of her locked tendons, succumbing to the flowers’ coaxing her senses to relax.

Her mind wanted to wander, but she shut it down, and just for a moment she was as mindless as the water vapors around her.

XLII.

They growled against the metal bars, each raspy screech a reminder of her failure.

“You’ve failed again, haven’t you?” The oppressive voice was too familiar, accompany to the cold gaze falling upon the animals: half human, a quarter Nokshan and a quarter insanity, hissing.

The limp pair of grey wings stitched to the first subject was already rotting, the spirits sustaining it having been misused. She had the chance to revive them, but not the skill to match such odds.

“This is just wrong…”

Claud paused in his pacing, raised a brow, “What else could we have done to amend for Emperor Luctus’s wrongs?”

“…” Eridani looked at her hands, wrists that had shed their bandages and wore scars instead.

At that the priest approached her, covering the jagged scripts of new skin with his forceful hands, “Child,” oh, the pretense of gentility was more revolting than the smell of this room. “You are simply restricted by your hesitation. You fear of betraying your brother.”

“And what’s so wrong about that?”

“Not wrong: it’s quite admirable, actually,” He brushed over the scars, read them. “But, he doesn’t deserve your devotion.”

She snatched her hands away, “You can’t be the judge of that.”

“Why, he’s abandoned you to chase after his revenge, then he became enamored with the daughter of the man who massacred your people.”

“You know nothing of him,” She snapped. “He was forced into a contract…he was desperate to save me. He would never…” Words caught at her throat when she recollected the last time she encountered him: time and her suffering twisted details and now she saw his arm too natural around the princess. “He would never…”

“How about this, Lady Eridani, shall we leave this dreary place?”

“What?”

Of course, it was a mere excursion for Claud’s businesses. Eridani found herself staring out a square of dull, flying scenery that was still better than the damp towers. She did not know where this insignificant town they stopped at was, but was just grateful to feel raw earth directly beneath her sole again.

An official greeted them with information that sped past Eridani’s ears as she was too distracted reviving her lungs with fresh air.

“This way, my lord,” They followed the man to a ran-down cottage.

“Who are we meeting?”

“The last person to have saw your brother and his new friends,” Claud mused.

A woman, seemingly young except for the dark clouds about her eyes, answered the door. At Claud’s introduction the fatigue melted off of the woman’s face temporarily as she invited the Grand Priest into her unworthy abode.

“Thank you,” The genteel Priest thanked the daughter of the older woman, who set tea down before them, cracked ceramics on a cracked table. “Madame, I am dearly sorry for your loss.”

“I have been helped with this township’s support, and now, Your Holiness’s presence, so my grief should be a burden for myself.”

Claud smiled solemnly, “It pains me to do this, but for the sake of bringing the criminals responsible for your husband’s death to justice, I must know how it conspired.”

The woman complied, “The day before, an one-armed man and his wife by the name of Elsinore came for my husband’s assistance. Mr. Elsinore appeared awfully ill, so I extended the courtesy of letting them stay. Then night came…my husband and I had a small argument, and Mrs. Elsinore interrupted. Out of embarrassment, my husband stopped but later decided that he needed to get some fresh air. He went downstairs on his own and I heard a loud bang, and I rushed downstairs…a shadow was there. Just a strange monstrous bird with…four powerful taloned limbs and amber eyes,” At this Eridani’s throat ran dry. “Then there was my husband, de…” Claud offered a hand in silent sympathy, and the widow found strength from the blessing and continued.

“Mrs. Elsinore was there, and beside her were two strangers that she later introduced as her fellow travelers: a young girl and a…Nokshan. I was too shaken to be suspicious, so I cleared my younger daughter’s room for the two strangers. The next–”

“– One room for the two of them, the Nokshan and the woman?” Eridani thought her voice unbearably cracked, but the inquiry necessary.

The woman did not find the fact crucial, though it meant the world to the inquisitor. “I thought only intimate relations would travel in each other’s sole company…still, I curse myself to this day for allowing them to defile my daughter’s room with their presence.” Claud thought he heard a crack, searched the unstable house and saw Eridani’s hands balled into pale fists; he smiled. “The next day, the guests left me a generous sum and I was almost thankful. Little did I know, the beast along with the Nokshan and the woman returned and attacked our house. My youngest daughter managed to convince the woman to stop and the beast vanished. She then seized my daughter when she saw the guards came, threatened to kill the poor girl–”

Eridani got up and left the damned house where her brother had murdered a man using Jiube and…her face burnt at the idea…shared a bed with the witch.

“Brother…he wouldn’t…” Was she blubbering like a fledgling? She hated so many things at once.

Claud was just glad. He stayed to interview the widow’s younger daughter, only to find discrepancies pointing to a more likely narrative given the princess’s stubbornness: she must have told the woman to place the blame on her, while the little girl refused out of naivety even though the widow knew better.

And Claud knew better, too, for he will continue to have the princess and her raven bear the blame: seeing the small, hooded frame of the young Nokshan wrecked by suppressed sobs and betrayal, he could only wait for the wrath to drown envy, to fix broken pride.

He smiled and counted at least one experiment successful.