LV.

Unforgivable, he slammed a fist against an innocent tree trunk, the spirits around him reminded him. Your negligence…had you taken your power, she wouldn’t have…

Yet he knew, the Creator’s voice was a dull drum guiding his steps. It urged him against all odds to leave his home, to seek out the Emperor for what he thought was purely revenge but instead…he looked down, surprised by the bright eyes peering back up at him a few respectful steps away.

“Stop it,” He didn’t feel her closing their distance, didn’t feel her hand on his, a gentle breeze seared the skin of his knuckles broken by jagged bark. “You had no control over her. You can’t blame yourself.”

His thoughts meandered on: instead, the Creator led him to her, and she was no subject of his revenge, no, quite opposite, she was… The warmth of her soft hands temporarily blocked out the sting of his desperate stupidity, and he only muttered idiotically, “I didn’t know you are right behind me.”

“You silly, blind raven.”

Is that an improvement? Before he could retort, heat overcame his knuckles, and she chuckled in that musical way of hers.

“It worked,” She smiled at the result of her successful experiment, his healed hand. “This is just an attempt at a ‘thank you’ for earlier.”

“If you temper with the spirits like that you will exhaust yourself,” God, he nagged like his mother: all he was trying to do was to name his inexplicable reluctance in pulling his hand away before opting to mutter. “You are a fast learner, I will give you that.”

“I am so flattered, oh great Nokshan king,” She rolled her eyes. “You’ve healed gashes on my back without a problem, so I should be fine.”

“Perhaps you forget that I am not human?”

She didn’t forget that fact that stands like an abyss between them, but only forgot that she was still holding his hands until now, “You are welcome,” before she hiked ahead, only glanced back to stick her tongue out in childish victory.

He couldn’t help but smile, and before he could scold the idiotic grin away Jiube gave his head a hard peck, hoppping away with a triumphant hoot.

“Hey!”

How he hated that fragment of his own damned spirit.

No matter, the rot of the sea was lost in the damp forests, and he could already see the greyish green of the cursed temple. At the conclusion of Ophie’s tale, they arrived upon the same conclusion to help. If his sister and that priest resorted to such low means, who was he to stand aside?

Despite his apparent iron resolve to end the blue jay altogether, he was far from ready to execute such resolution. And each step towards the confrontation fragmented the nonexistent determination until all was left was dust and remorse when they were at the gates. Yet, the gentle drums of the Creator beat on: put an end to her cursed existence, it should have been so too long ago.

I know, he knew, he simply couldn’t…that was another reason he ran away from his power…from —

“ — Alde,” She pulled him back from the whirlwinds of thoughts yet again. “Stand watch here.”

“What? That’s ridiculous.”

“We may not have to resort to violence,” She was unconvinced herself, but determined to try. “Unlike you are ready to raise a hand against her, anyway.”

“I…”

“Just stay here.”

“No, I can…”

“It’s a command,” He jolted as the runes about his neck seared and warned him at his first disobedient step.

“I don’t need a collar,” He winced in disgust, but before he could see her pained look he took to the cover of trees and a disguising spell.

Lyra immediately regretted her decision when she followed the grandfather, her uncle and Athlem into the chilly shadows of the stone temple clearly losing its battle to time and lichens. But she had to, the Creator already subjected him to too many cruelties and she deemed it her duty to change that. Still, how she would have preferred to have the Nokshan by her side is a sentiment she dared not pronounced even when each eroded carving looked more than ready to collapse onto her with their uncanny shadows since she needed not her aunt’s teasing.

“Here,” the old man barked, setting his lantern upon an altar that she tried not to imagine covered with blood offerings as it was when it still used. “Now, we just have to wait for sunset.” He set himself upon the mat of tangled ivy weaving together the cracked stone floors, meditating.

Lyra thought better than to disturb the old man and went to join her aunt and uncle.

“I told you not to come here,” Horatio’s whisper to his beloved was largely ignored as the addressed merely wandered off to study a relatively preserved fresco.

“This entire affair stems from me, so I should at least have a hand in solving it,” She offered her reasoning, resting a hand on her still flat abdomen. “Don’t worry, love.”

Lyra instinctively tugged herself close to her aunt to silence any more nagging from Horatio, attempting to understand what fresco would be interesting enough to deserve attention at such a crucial time, “What do you make of that?”

Athlem dared to touch the fragile walls, “I was trying to see if I am insane, but could you hear that?”

Lyra attempted to quiet her racing heart but to no prevail, “What?”

“Is the earth rumbling, just the slightest?”

“Hrm…” Then she felt it, too, the solemn thuds of the earth beneath their feet in miniscule, dulled drums.

No, not exactly beneath their feet, but before them, burrowed deep behind the frescos a mountain’s length away. If she squint, she could almost see it, a strange apparition, no, apparitions drifting in immense chaos and disturbance, running away from —

The distinct clacks of steps against stone drew them away from their reverie.

LIV.

“My name is Ophie of the Polonus. Our family had always been one of the most skilled fishers of the Southshores, our nets always so full that our village dubbed us the whisperers of the sea. Altogether, our village was prosperous, tradesmen from all over the world make their way here from the main city ports.”

“A few months ago…my father went out to sea, but he never returned. We thought we lost him…turned out it would have been better had he been buried at sea.”

“A few days later, we heard a knock at our door in the middle of the night. We were all sleepless from our anxiety and grief so my brother answered it like a bolt of lightning. There were no one except for a note and a ring — my father’s ring — the note said, ‘obey us and turn over your family’s secret or another part of your fisher will be returned to you.’ Then there were instructions for us to leave our family heirloom at a temple by a nearby jetty.”

“None of us knew what they were asking for: the only thing remotely like an heirloom is my great grandfather’s watch. We almost suspected our own townspeople, but we know they are far too wise to be jealous to this extent. We brushed it off, thought it a cruel trick. Then the next day, we found a bundle at our doorstep: it was a….severed hand, my father’s. A new note written by what we immediately recognized as my father’s writing told us in earnest to give the heirloom away. Meet them at the temple, they insisted. We had to.”

“So the next day, at the appointed time, we went and had some of our trusted neighbors hideout with whatever weapon we could find…When the sun sunk to about half a disk, two hooded figures came to my grandfather, who was representing us to meet with the strangers.”

“Grandfather presented them the pocket watch, and — I saw the two strange figures and thought that they must be a hunchback and a man — they took it, and the hunchback dashed it against the rocks and shattered it to pieces: the figure raised its voice, and it was a female’s, sharp and shrill.”

“ ‘Deception,’ I caught her saying with a strange accent. ‘You are trying to trick us for settling such a foolish trap.’”

“We didn’t know how they saw us, not one of us even batted our eyes during their meeting and we know the area like the ridges of our hands. Mother took the moment to attack the man, and others followed suit. We thought they didn’t stand a chance: we felled beasts of the sea at a smaller number often.”

“In a blur I just smelled blood…blood everywhere. Many of our kinsmen were hurt, sprawled on the ground. I couldn’t believe my eyes but the hunchback had lost her cloak during the struggle, and there revealed that the bump was no twisted back, but a pair of wings. They were not unlike yours, Lord Aldebaran but the hue is of a bright sky blue. I would never forget those wings with their ungodly blue.”

“She saw that most of my family were not unscathed and smiled. At any other time I would have found her ethereal, beautiful, but she was a murderer. Then the man threatened us to bring in our actual heirloom, or else all who we cared about would be killed. Grandfather pleaded that there were no such heirloom that they sought, but they left without another word. We patched and helped our wounded.”

“Since then many of our fellow villagers heard of the confrontation, of the menacing banshee. Their fear became so strong that they were willing to forsake their ancestors’ ways and moved from the shores. Despite our simplicity, our town provide a great amount of food sources for the rest of the kingdom, so the local magistrates soon noticed the change. They prohibited the sudden flight in fear of disturbing trade. That only made matters worse: people thought that the king had some plan of sabotage and snuck out of the area as though to escape a plague.”

“But we knew the truth, and the few that saw or believed or were brave enough stayed. We wanted to reclaim our proud town from this irrational fear. We had to. However, before we could plan to retake our town by hunting that strange banshee, something worse happened.”

“They must have realized that we are determined to ignore their demands as each note became more menacing. One day, we just got a nameless bundle. We all saw this day coming, but…You see, in our belief, the head symbolizes the seat of the soul. Once gone, the soul would then be trapped in a state of uncertain meandering for eternity.”

“So imagine…how we felt when our father…or son…or husband…”

“Even worse, within that same week, all these apparitions began to appear, killing whichever villager remained. By the charms of our ancestors, we have the curse to continue living. We were safe as long as we staid behind these doors barred and fortified. Grandfather only risked yielding the door for you when he saw that your companion is not unlike our tormentor, and that he was capable of dispersing the vile spirits.”

“Now, your Highness and honored guests, please help us. For we are desperate and lost, on the verge of death. The Polonus would forever be in your debt if you should be able to lift such a curse.”

The address was to the Etzion prince, thought the eyes were upon the Nokshan King, who buried his mind in blank inexpression only interpreted by the one that read his mind.

No, Lyra began.

I have to kill her, His resolve remained, while the rest of the world could only guess at the dull glint of rage in his otherwise immoveable facade of perfect impartiality.

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.

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.

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.

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.

XXXIX.

The roots were an angry congregation, zealous in their task of tripping whoever dared to cross their brotherhood. Lyra was the heathen, excommunicated from the church of nature by the sheltered life she led. Now that she walked amongst the aisles between each ancient trunk, she was amazed. The sheer number of life she trod under her feet, the harmonious pulses and impulses were different in that they were indifferent to the temporary being that was mankind.

Still, she was a tumbling fool: her attempt at poise only seemed to distance her from her winged companion more. She recalled why she subjected herself to such a pilgrimage.

Earlier that morning, she was prepared to leave with Horatio and Athlem, meeting Aldebaran at the edge of town. They left the widowed and her two daughters with gratitude in enough gold to straighten the three’s rundown place.

“I wonder,” Horatio mused as they took to the covered, forested paths. “Could they be free now?”

“Free?” Athlem thought the concept oddly idealistic and uncharacteristic of her beloved’s usual utterance, but thought it cruel to stub what must be his attempt at optimism. “Why, one day, perhaps.”

But Lyra wasn’t so susceptible to character change, and was more concerned with expressing the contents of a moving script that she vaguely remembered from a night of wandering, “It’s much easier to dispatch of a man than his shadow.”

Horatio resorted to silence after that.

They were greeted by Aldebaran — technically first ambushed by Jiube the furball that threw itself at Lyra in chirping joy since it was unconvinced that the Princess was coming back — and was going to continue for Etzion when Aldebaran suddenly snapped.

“How did the three of you combined not notice that you were being followed?”

From their connected mind Lyra realized a weight that sank her heart into blank terror. How could she not feel such an aura before? She looked up at Alde, his face frozen in an unblinking intensity glaring into the path from where she just came.

The intruder seemed to have heard her discovery and made a move, ruffling the dense bushes before revealing herself in harmlessness.

It was just a little girl, Lyra found herself stupid for being so frightened as she release the elbow of Alde’s sleeve that she did not remember grasping. It was the girl they ran into yesterday, the younger daughter of the dead man.

“Sorry to have startle you,” She bowed, the hood of her cloak nearly swallowed her head. “Good day to you.” And as random as she came, she left, the roughly-bounded book still clutched to her chest.

As soon as she left Aldebaran stated blankly, “We have to take the notebook from her.”

“‘We’?” Horatio was unamused. “I understand that knowledge is powerful, so how is it our business to rob a girl of that?”

“Please, it’s not that, the pages…” It was not the barrier of foreign language that made Aldebaran pause, for reality and typical understanding of normality has a gap words find it difficult to bridge.

Still, Lyra interpreted the feeling — the sinking, utter doom elicited by that simple girl, or rather, the book. So she was ready to rush to action, to which Horatio acquiescence with a sigh. That is how she faced the predicament described towards the earlier part of this chapter: trekking on, the fading aura of menace and Alde’s steps her only sense of direction. Then all the sudden the sensation doubled, screeching rage swallowed despair whole.

What on earth happened?

The trees thinned subtly at her inquiry, giving away to a clearing that answered. There was the girl, standing before a general splatter of pages in an almost ritualistic light that seeped past the overarching branches. To the four’s amazement, there was also the darkness, the beast, directly above the pages like an apparition. Lyra squinted and saw a man, taunted herself into thinking otherwise.

“Why did you do that?” The girl scold her monster. “You didn’t have to kill him.”

The beast cowered at the girl’s reproach, lowered its massive head.

What is that? Lyra thought better than to mumble and thought to Aldebaran instead.

I am…not sure…but clearly the girl — at that the beast turned about, its fiery eyes flared at them. There was a blood-curling roar as it charged at the latest offender of this sacred space. “Did it somehow hear me?” was a query Lyra postponed, quickly dodging out of the way as the immeasurable darkness crashed into where they stood. A scar into dense greenery, a collateral hiss of the millions of life Lyra was just marveling over a few heartbeats ago. After the ring of her deafened ears subsided she made out the girl’s screeched remonstrance.

“What are you doing? Leave them alone!” The fiery eyes and their formless darkness of a frame could not be persuaded.

It was so much more than words, so little to do with its original scripts at this point of the narrative the beast broke the chains of its creator’s self restraint: all fury, setting aflame all that could be blamed.

Horatio drew forth an utterance powerful enough to trap the beast, a shell of energy that it was readily snapping against in increasing fervor, “Destroy the pages!” Athlem observed.

The girl beat them to it and took up the first leaf and ripped. As the page screeched and bled, the ink was freed and tainted the earth. As she and the others grasped at the pages a roar from the beast signaled its newfound freedom, a gust of wind swept them out of reach, drew them into the void that is the creature. Lyra would’ve been concerned with her uncle’s increasing pallor had the darkness not shift as she blinked, took form, stood.

She drew a broken breath, he of all people waved at her. The man, curt smile and an outstretched hand.

“Lyra,” The beast’s voice was a quiet command. “Come here, my child”