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Infinity's End

The Break of Day

Part Two - Chapter Two

January 9th, 1985

“Did you hear?”

Azriel looked up from his book. He barely moved his legs in time before Kieran flopped on his bed, inviting himself as he always did.

“Hear what?” he asked, amusement filling his tone as he sat up.

Kieran flailed around on the bed, insinuating himself around until his head was pillowed on Azriel's thigh. “High Lord Arlen announced his child this afternoon. Born yesterday actually. A boy.”

“I seem to recall overhearing gossip about that.”

Azriel folded his book closed, careful to mark the page. With Kieran visiting, paying attention to anything else was nigh impossible.

“He sent pronouncements to each of the houses.” Kieran snorted. He thumped his head against Azriel's thigh again, as though requesting affection. Not unlike a house cat, actually.

Azriel chuckled to himself and indulged Kieran by obeying. He carded his fingers through the dark hair. There was a distinct wave in the long strands, however, from where Kieran kept it constantly bound.

“We have to attend the naming.” Kieran made a face, aether tinted with annoyance, though he butted his head under Azriel's fingers. “Did you know Mama actually told me that I have to bring Harper? Since she's my intended.”

“I’m not surprised. You are the Azura heir after all.”

Kieran kicked out a leg with a petulant air. “Don't remind me.”

How many years had it been since they first met? And Kieran still acted like a child at times. Azriel had yet to decide if it was cute behavior or grossly inappropriate.

“And then, Mama laughed and told me to make sure you came, too.”

Azriel blinked. “Why in Talemar would I be required to attend the naming of Arlen's first born?”

“I don't know.” Kieran rolled his shoulders. “Mama had a mischievous look in her eyes when she said it though. Marduk got this thunderous look on his face and said, in no uncertain terms, that if I showed up with my pet, there would be consequences.”

Azriel winced.

Kieran sighed and continued, his aether buzzing with resentment. “I snapped at him. He had no right to call you that. I didn't plan on bringing you anyway since I don't want to go. Why would I drag you along? But that wasn't the point.” His frown deepened. “Needless to say, words were exchanged, I walked out. Last I know, Mama was trying to calm the raging beast.”

Well, that explained at least why Kieran had randomly shown up at his house. Whenever Kieran ran away, he ended up here. He didn't mind the company, and his mother indulged Kieran far too often.

Azriel groped for words but found himself speechless. He'd known that few approved of his friendship with Kieran. It amused most of the mid-tier nobles, considering it an indulgence on Kieran's part and an attempt to curry favor on Azriel's part. He ignored the whispers as best he could. Fortunately, he was used to name-calling. It had been a part of his existence for as long as he could remember. Azriel could shake off the caustic remarks and keep going because he had to.

Kieran, however, was not so used to criticism. More, he and his father never agreed on anything, and his friendship with Azriel was proving a constant source of friction. The easy route would be to end their association, but Kieran wouldn't have it. Azriel found it was pointless to try and argue otherwise.

That he valued their friendship and would feel bereft without it, Azriel left unsaid. He didn't want to reveal that weakness lest someone exploit it.

“Think Miss Neorah would mind if I moved in with you?” Kieran asked and turned his head upward to meet Azriel's gaze.

“Where would we put you?” Azriel returned, rather pragmatically. The house was small, holding only two bedrooms, one bathroom, a kitchen, and a shared common area. “In the cupboard?”

Kieran grinned. “I could fit. I'd be quiet as a mouse. Wouldn't cause any trouble at all.”

“That I cannot believe. You’re the definition of trouble.” Despite himself, Azriel chuckled. “Besides, you would miss your mother, yes?”

Kieran sighed. He turned his head back down and all but buried his face in the folds of Azriel's robe.

“You're right. Like always.”

“Perhaps not always. But often enough that it seems so, especially when it comes to you.” Azriel glanced at his pocketwatch, a birthday gift from Kieran last year. He’d made plans for one of his rare days off, and while Kieran's visit was appreciated, it was also unexpected.

“Close enough.” Kieran's aether settled into a more relaxed thrum. “Just for tonight then? I don't want to go home, and I don't want to sleep in the lab again.”

“Where’s Harper?”

“Out. On patrol. Again.” Kieran hauled himself upward with more effort than the motion required, a pout forming on his lips. “She's being secretive, too. Said they have her in some new program but she can't tell me what it is.”

New program? Azriel wondered if his uncles knew anything about that and if they’d be willing to tell him.

“Do you mind?” Kieran was all pleading eyes and pathetic expression.

Azriel rustled up all the will power in his disposal. He did have other obligations, but the time he had to spend with others was so limited, he’d been ignoring Kieran as well. Considering what had driven him here in the first place, Azriel was reluctant to cast him out.

The brunet bit back a sigh. He'd already made his decision, it seemed.

“I'll sleep on the couch,” Kieran added. “I'll make breakfast in the morning.”

“It’d be better for us all, I think, if you remained out of our kitchen,” Azriel said with a resigned tone. “Yes, you can stay.”

The smile that lit his friend’s face made the irritation vanish in the blink of an eye.

Azriel swung his legs over the side of the bed, pushing himself to his feet. He was a little amused as Kieran thumped down behind him, having lost his prop.

“I, however, have something I must attend to first.”

Not for the first time did he lament that Meropis did not have some type of communication system in place. He’d have to give his regrets in person, plunging into the snow-choked day. Maybe it was better this way.

“You're leaving?”

Azriel pulled out a heavier robe and a scarf. He ignored Kieran's forlorn tone.

“I made plans with Titania.”

“Ah.” Kieran winced. “I could hide in the living room?”

Yes, please, make it even more awkward.

“That won't be necessary,” he dismissed. “Make yourself at home. I'll be back shortly.”

Guilt flickered on the edges of Kieran's aether, but it didn't linger. He tossed himself backward on Azriel's bed, taking his advice.

“I'll be here.”

Azriel gathered up his boots, gloves, and coat, girding himself for plunging into the bitter cold. An explanation began to formulate in the back of his mind, but he was certain Titania would understand. She had a soft spot for Kieran and was known to indulge him, too.

Then again, who didn't?

Kieran was spoiled, and Azriel continued to contribute to it. He had only himself to blame.

It was snowing again, Azriel noted as he stepped into the wintry afternoon. There was little wind, so the thick flakes fell in steady droves and blanketed the ground. It was already ankle-deep, and if this continued, it’d reach his knees before long.

Azriel hurried, soaking in the sounds of a silent city. Meropis as a whole went quiet in the wintertime. People hurried home from work or shopping. Few crowded the streets, eager to return to the warmth of their hearths.

Down the road, a few children played, shrieking with laughter. But they were the only ones brave enough to linger outside.

Luckily, the Records Division was warm. It was a relief to step through the side doors, heat smacking against his chilled cheeks and instantly melting the snow that had landed on his shoulders. Azriel knocked as much out of his boots as was possible, shoved his gloves into his pockets and unwound the scarf.

Inside, it was dark and dim. The skylights were covered, leaving lanterns the only source of illumination, and they were inadequate.

He believed that Titania was working in the registry this week, so it was there that he looked, descending the rickety staircase to a lower level. It was even darker here, flickering lanterns casting an ocher gleam on the dozens of bookcases, parchment rolled and stacked in uneven bursts on the shelves.

“Titania?”

There was a muffled rattle from the back corner and a muttered exclamation before a confused voice floated out.

“Azriel?”

He tried to follow the sound, tracking it to the earliest known records of Meropis' inhabitants. Naturally, those were kept in the dustiest, darkest corners. How Titania could stand to do this – by herself – and not be unnerved, Azriel didn’t know.

His lover popped into view, stripped down to a pair of loose trousers and sleeveless shirt. Her blond hair was pulled into a loose bun on top of her head, baring the nape of her neck in deference to the heat. Dust smudged her cheeks.

Azriel himself already felt the sweat trickling down his back. He wore far too many layers but didn't want to take the time to strip off a few.

“I thought I was going to meet you at your house?” Titania asked.

She pulled out a rag and ran it over her face. Azriel approached, offering a handkerchief out of his pocket and brushing it over her forehead.

“There's been a change of plans. I’ve an unexpected guest tonight.”

“Kieran?”

He tilted his head. “How did you know?”

She tucked her cloth into her pocket, offering him a smile. “It could only be him.”

She did have a point. Azriel had few friends. While his uncles would be enthused to be extended an invitation, logistically, there was no room in the tiny house to fit them.

“He fought with his father,” Azriel explained and opened his arms with an invitation that Titania took, nestling against him. It was far too hot for this, but the closeness was nice. “As is usually the case, he’s now hiding at my house until he gathers up the courage to go home again.”

Titania made a noncommittal sound in her throat. She rose on her tiptoes to press a kiss to his cheek.

“So I gathered. He always runs to you.”

Azriel chuckled at this. “Not so much recently. Harper has become his harbor. It’s our bad luck that she is away right now.”

“Bad luck is one term you could use.” There was a strange note in Titania's voice, but it was gone the next moment as she gave Azriel a light squeeze. “It's for the best, I suppose. After spending hours done here, I'm interested in a bath and sleep. Perhaps not even in that order.”

Azriel brushed hair from her eyes and cupped her cheek. He dipped his head, brushing his lips against hers, pleased when she responded back.

“Allow me to walk you home. The snow grows deeper by the minute.”

A purring rumble of assent echoed in her chest. “You could always come in. Kieran can sleep at your house, and you can stay at mine.”

It was a tempting offer. Politeness dictated, however, that he did not leave a guest unattended for long. Furthermore, he hadn't warned his mother about their unexpected visitor.

Lips moving against hers, Azriel indulged in several more kisses.

“Perhaps another time.”

“It was worth a try.” Titania exhaled audibly and stepped back out of his arms. “I'll go gather my things. Meet you at the door?”

Azriel nodded and watched her slip into the main corridor, brushing bits of dust from her hair. He knew it would take a few minutes – Titania had the habit of dressing in layers, gradually shedding them as she worked. As a result, items would be scattered throughout the area. Lucky that she usually worked here alone with only the occasional apprentice to offer a complaint.

With time to spare, Azriel took the opportunity to peek at what she’d been working on. She was in charge of ensuring the legibility and organization of the Tolpa's records. It was a gargantuan task, but one she enjoyed. As a result though, she spent copious amounts of times checking and cross-checking facts, recopying documents, and categorizing unsorted piles.

Her current task apparently was a collection of old letters. Azriel reached for the top of the stack, pulling the aged document into better light. The handwriting was atrocious, slanted and cursive, the letters scrunched together in a muddled mess. It was dated at the top, though the year had faded with time and proved illegible.

Azriel skimmed through, noting that it was addressed to Lord Vasuda, which didn't tell him much. He’d have to pull out a chart to figure out which Vasuda it might have been. The seal stamped at the top closely resembled their current brand, but there were a few key differences. Truly, this letter was ancient.

It spoke of magic, he noticed. There were vague mentions about processes to strengthen inherent abilities. There were talks of bonds perhaps. The old writing was smudged and difficult to decipher.

How intriguing. He must speak to Manah about this. Perhaps she could shed some light on the subject.

“Azriel?”

He startled, losing his grip on the paper, and had to scramble to keep it from fluttering to the floor.

“I'm coming,” he called back, raising his voice to be heard. “I'm sorry. I was distracted.”

Titania's chuckle floated down to him. “I should’ve known. It happens the moment you get around a scrap of history.”

Azriel settled the paper back on top of the pile and hurried to the stairs. Titania was waiting at the top, sliding first one hand and then the other into her gloves.

“I do find it fascinating,” Azriel admitted, climbing up to stand beside her.

Behind him, the storage room went dark as the lanterns winked out, one by one. The upper floor would remain lit, but to conserve oil, Titania doused the lower lamps with a wave of her hand.

“I'll tell you what I'm working on as you walk me home.” Titania held out an elbow for him to take. “Though I'm more interested in law, I bet that you’ll find my current task riveting.”

“Do tell.”

Azriel hooked his arm in hers. Together, they headed for the main door, which Titania would lock behind her.

Outside, the bitter cold seemed all the more frigid for the heat that the Records Division blasted. Azriel winced as flakes of snow slammed against his face. All he wanted to do was burrow deeper into his coat, tugging his scarf tighter around his neck.

“Ah, I love winter,” Titania said, a bright smile on her face as she tilted her head back, letting the snow brush her cheeks.

If their arms weren't linked, Azriel believed she’d start dancing. Affection curled his lips.

“Any particular reason why?”

“No single one.” Their steps fell in sync as they trudged through the snow, walking streets long deserted by other residents and workers. “I like the snow, the long nights, the soft quiet.” Her head tilted and rested briefly on his shoulder. “The contrast of a warm bed and a cold room.”

Azriel nodded. “All good reasons. I’m not averse to winter. I still prefer spring.”

“Most do.” Titania laughed. “But I promised I would tell you what I'm working on, and so I will. Lord Vasuda cleaned out one of his cellars and found bundles of letters. Unwilling to waste the time himself, he sent them to the Skyla. They, in turn, sent them to the Records Division. Though I suspect by the time I finish sorting them, the letters will be in the hands of the Skyla once again.”

“And what of their contents?”

Titania rolled her shoulders, her free hand resting on his arm. “As best I can tell, they’re a series of correspondences between the seven heads of the noble houses. I keep finding vague references to a fallen city and a curse, but the letters are so old that the writing is smudged or faded.”

“Interesting. Would it be all right if I came and looked at them?” Azriel tried and failed to hide his fascination.

The fallen city, he suspected, was Varos. With it, the curse that had caused its fall. Perhaps these letters would reveal what Manah had been hesitant to tell him.

“I don't mind. Your insight would help me classify everything.” Titania squeezed his arm, aether betraying her reluctance. “Are you sure I can't convince you to come in?”

Azriel glanced at the modest structure that Titania called home. Nestled in the midst of a community of two-story houses for singles like Titania, it looked warm and inviting. Azriel didn’t look forward to the long trudge back to his house. Nevertheless, he couldn’t leave Kieran to his own devices, especially if the man got it in his head to cook. Azriel mightn’t have a kitchen upon his return, much less a house.

“I didn't think so,” Titania sighed before he could so much as offer up a response. She extricated herself from his arms and faced him, rising up to press a kiss to his cheek. “I'll expect your visit sometime this week. I'll keep the letters out for you.”

Azriel turned his head. He captured her lips for another brief kiss before she slipped out of his arms.

“Thank you. Sleep well.”

“You, too.”

He watched and waited until he was sure she was safe inside her house, the lantern blooming to life in her front window all he needed to see. She drew back the curtains, giving him a little wave, and Azriel lifted a hand in return. With that, he turned and prepared himself for the long trudge home.

By the time his house came into view, Azriel's feet were frozen, he couldn't feel his nose, and he feared he might never have use of his fingers again. It was a relief to dive into the warmth inside, the smell of his mother's cooking drifting down the hallway.

“Is that you, dear?”

“You're home early, Mother.”

He kicked his boots, knocking off most of the snow, before removing his winter attire.

She appeared in the kitchen doorway, dusting flour from her hands. “The snow is expected to worsen. Everyone was sent home save the minimal staff.”

“I'm surprised you didn't volunteer.”

His mother smiled. “I tried, but Lady Arlen told me that I deserved the opportunity to go home for once.”

“And she would be right.” Azriel removed the last of his layers and greeted his mother with a kiss to the cheek. “We have a guest.”

“I know.” Amusement flickered in his mother's aether. “He's currently asleep on your bed. With the weather, he'll be here for a few days yet.”

Azriel shook his head. “He'll be happy to know that. I'll go wake him.”

His mother waved a dismissing hand, stepping back into the kitchen. “Let him sleep a bit longer. Dinner won't be done for another hour at least.”

“Do you need some help?”

She smiled wider. “No, dear. I'm fine.”

Azriel tilted his head in acknowledgment and continued down the hall, determined to first check on Kieran and then assist his mother. As stated, his friend was indeed asleep on his bed, sprawled out as though to take up as much space as possible. Azriel shook his head. He hadn't even taken off his glasses.

Azriel crept into the room, intending to remove them before he rolled over and broke them. Kieran probably had a dozen spare pairs, but none currently in this house, and he was nearly blind without them.

A creak in the floor betrayed his presence. Kieran made a noise, flopping over, only to shift into a languid stretch, eyes fluttering open.

“... Azriel?”

“Comfortable?” he asked, more than a little amused.

“Very.” Kieran offered a sleepy grin, pulling off his glasses with one hand and rubbing his eyes with the other. “Sorry. Stayed up all night. Had an idea.”

“Isn't that usually the case?” Azriel returned easily.

“Heh. Yeah.” Kieran scooted over, leaving room for Azriel. “What's for dinner?”

Azriel chuckled and sat down. Kieran, at least, could always be counted on to be predictable.

***

Cassandra Smith writing as Nicole Wilkinson
Copyright 2006-2016
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