The freshly appointed Emet-Selch had long grown weary of accepting the cordial congratulations of his new colleagues.
The high-ceilinged debate parlor was dimly lit orange and blue for the occasion held in his honor. The setting sun still glittered on the segmented windows. Sounds of Convocation members and dozens of Amaurotines engaged in conversation filled the space. Emet-Selch sipped down the last remaining drops in his tall glass.
A former colleague from the Bureau of the Architect was currently slathering him in praise. Emet-Selch’s masterwork had left him speechless initially, but no more, as the words of reverence were neverending.
Hades had chosen a difficult subject for his final personal work at the Bureau; A constructed river, which reflected the land of the dead. If one were to peer under its churning depths, glimpses of the free souls in the afterlife could be seen by anyone. His core thesis had been that this window was an invasion on the peaceful rest of the dead. As a statement to crown his ascension, Emet-Selch had let the waters free from the restraint of the river, destroying the never before seen window to the lifestream. The audience present had been captivated by the gesture of honor - the living had the means to look, but chose not to. The dead had been given the rest they deserved.
Witness to a meaningful display such as this, the Amaurotines present would not forget the day easily, Emet-Selch thought.
Contribution to the star was his life’s work. He had every reason to be pleased for one evening, before new duties as Emet-Selch warranted his attention. So it was irrational to the extreme that he was, currently, somewhat irritated.
In the end, a certain someone had not been there to see his masterwork.
After the demonstration and a brief oath of office, celebrations were held. Very little aside from light debate of no substance had been partaken in during the evening. Emet-Selch feared that if one more abstract supposition garnished with allegories was presented to him, he may just allow himself to frown.
He escaped his former colleague with the excuse of hoping to be well rested tomorrow. The excuse not even entirely fabrication. The great stone hallways of the administrative building echoed as he stormed through them.
The ceremony of him assuming the seat had almost gone as it should. All Convocation members were expected to be present, and all were, except for one. So, there the thirteen of them had sat, in awkward silence, waiting for a certain someone to turn up. Lahabrea, ever the stickler for rules, had proposed to postpone the oath to another day so that the ever tardy one may attend. But Hades had insisted they not wait – they may wait forever.
Thoughts disturbed by irritation and heart clouded with betrayal, he took the vows and became Emet-Selch.
In the vaulted lobby, his path to the large doors of the exit had a final obstacle.
A man he did not recognize as a resident of Amaurot seemed to be idly waiting.
“My, isn’t this…,” the man spoke up at the sight of him. “Good evening, esteemed member of the Fourteen.”
“As well," said Emet-Selch. "What brings you here this late? Can I help?”
“If you can’t, then nobody can. I have traveled to Amaurot from the south-eastern city of Udepolis, carrying with me a problem in need of debate. Would you hear my thoughts and take them for the Convocation’s ears?”
“Your initiative is appreciated,” said Emet-Selch. “Tonight is a night of revelry, but in time I will make sure your worries are heard.” He very intentionally avoided making promises about when that would be, though. He feared what sort of infernal chaos his predecessor had left the seat’s businesses in. “I shall listen briefly, and maybe then both of us can retire for the day."
His new duty already bound him, with the red mask singling him out as a figure of authority.
"Then hear me," the man cleared his gravely throat and began explaining at length.
The dilemma, explained vividly and in detail, was about sheep, about interspecific competition, and symbiotic concepts in danger of extinction.
Emet-Selch crossed his arms, dutifully set aside his weariness, and took on the role of the interrogator. As is the expectation in a semi-formal debate, irrespective of his own opinions he took the opposing stance. Earlier today he had vowed to always do what is best for their society and the star. He supposed he would sleep better if, instead of the idle chit chat at the ceremony, the final thing he did today was of substantial value.
“Always bears to remember concepts tested only in Elpis may not survive the mainland,“ Emet-Selch said after the man had finished.
The stranger nodded thoughtfully: “In my untrained eyes the problem is not how to maintain the creatures’ original lifestyle, but how they can diversify it. Would you not agree that a species dependent on a single resource is prone to dramatic devastation if that resource is threatened?”
Emet-Selch had listened patiently, and a picture of the predicament had formed in his mind. Creatures afraid of death had unwittingly invited destruction on their home. The man's query had turned out to be passingly diverting. The problem was multifaceted, with not one single right answer. Emet-Selch couldn’t have hoped for a better problem to occupy himself with in the coming days.
“So,” the man said, looking expectant, “What should be done?”
Emet-Selch hummed in thought. “The judgment could go either way and I cannot make it alone. But the ecosystem will be brought back to balance, and the concepts reviewed for any flaws,” Emet-Selch bowed to the man. “I thank you for coming all this way.”
With the debate over, the man responded with a bow of his own. The two exited the building into the dim evening, and parted ways.
Outside, the luminescent sky of the summer night was blue, peach and pink. The sparse purple clouds drifted so high up they appeared to not be moving at all, like a domed ceiling painted brightly. The high tide had brought ocean water to the tidal river Anyder, the salty smell in the inland city a sign of a night fallen.
Alone at last, Emet-Selch felt at peace for only a few footfalls. Soon his troubled thoughts, ever only two steps behind, caught up.
He wished he could stop thinking.
Of the oath. Of a certain troublesome absentee. He thought the morning could not come soon enough. Hopefully bringing with it so much work that he’d never again be idle enough to think about anything besides. Busy beyond belief, just like the troublemaker. These days, even Hythlodaeus was needed in so many places, seemingly at once, that the two of them could only speak fleetingly, or about work. The last time they had met, Hythlodaeus had needed Hades to kick an immortal firebird into the afterlife. The congratulations for his soon-to-be seat at the Convocation's table had seemed only an afterthought.
In the end, relationships were an ephemeral thing. Two ships passing each other in the night. He had been a fine fool to waste time on them. Emet-Selch scowled at a streetlamp.
In time he may come to terms with how Azem had first made no end of trouble for him, endlessly and every day, and then left him behind. In time.
So it was to his ultimate horror that a person draped in dark robes and a red mask jumped from a building and landed hunched in front of him. The slab stoned street buckled, and dust billowed.
The foreboding figure raised their head.
“H-Hades…” said Azem from the hole in the pavement, “I’m sorry I missed your oath of office. I tried to make it.”
Emet-Selch wiped dust from his dark robes, ears ringing. “It’s Emet-Selch now, as you know , refer to me as you should.”
Azem rose from the dust occluded crater, looking bashful, and took a wise step back.
Gloriously too late, Azem had appeared. Emet-Selch's mood fouled.
"Sorry, Emet-Selch…” they said, “I sent word ahead that I would be at your ceremony, and I intended to be, but you won’t believe the strange thing that happened on the way! A single gobblin–”
“Stop”, Emet-Selch interrupted. “At this rate I shall indeed not believe a word you say.” He placed two fingers to his forehead to help rein in the bubbling anger. He could hardly believe the nerve Azem had.
“I can’t imagine you returned all this way only to miss my appointment? What other obligations do you have?”
Azem fiddled with their hands. “Ah. Wish I had none, but unfortunately a few await me. And after uhm, dealing with them I must soon leave the city again. A few weeks of rest. Some festering problems in the far north seem to not care whether my break was all too short or not…”
Emet-Selch’s remaining joviality evaporated.
Azem waited patiently, but when Emet-Selch couldn’t find his tongue they continued talking: “Congratulations, Emet-Selch. The moment a word reached me that the Convocation was finally considering you for the office I sent them my approval! Nobody would suit the seat better.”
“Well,” Emet-Selch sighed. “Thank you. You are possibly the last person in Amaurot to tell me that today.”
Azem opened their mouth to continue, but Emet-Selch raised a hand to silence them. “Was that all?” he asked. “You should know, but I will be incredibly busy from today forward. Despite our now equal standing, I would not be surprised if this was the last we ever spoke outside of Convocation meetings. What a tragedy, but such is life.” Emet-Selch thought he saw Azem flinch. Were they surprised their deeds had consequences, he thought with scorn.
The color of Azem’s soul turned sorrowful, and they sounded dejected when they spoke: “You must be very tired. I’m happy I could congratulate you despite being late. And, umh… I did have one more thing: Where does Hythlodaeus live these days?”
Emet-Selch sighed again. “Opposite bank of the river, in the Tellis Pylades house. I’m sure you’ll find him like you found me, though maybe reconsider the meteorite approach and let the man sleep.”
He thought it pertinent to drive home just how badly Azem had failed today, so he gave them the coldest of wordless glares. In response, a sad smile curved Azem's mouth, for reasons unknown.
Realizing he really couldn't guess Azem's thoughts gave him pause. At one point in time Emet-Selch had thought he knew this person. That he could know their feelings and intentions, and share honesty and camaraderie with them. He wasn’t sure he could anymore. His heart was bruised blue in the ice cold grip of loss. It stung now, but he would eventually forget and move past this all. In time.
Emet-Selch walked past Azem, taking some dark joy in being the first one to leave this time. Azem might have stayed behind in stunned silence, or left right away, he did not turn around to find out. He could however be sure that Azem had not thought to fix the hole in the pavement, the troublemaker.
The next day Azem woke up on Hythlodaeus’ couch, to the sound of their dear friend speaking with a dramatic cadence.
“Ohh heavens, how dreadful!” Hythlodaeus announced, silhouette outlined by the morning sun. “While I was sound asleep the great Azem has slipped into my home, and in the dark hours of the night done who knows what! How shall I ever recover?!”
Sleepiness gone, Azem sprung up and scooped Hythlodaeus up into a tight hug. They squeezed with extra force to make up for all the time apart. “Hythlodaeus!" Azem sobbed, "I missed you so much! Every pink flower in the meadows and every cotton candy cloud in the sky made me think of you! Did you receive my letters?”
Hythlodaeus sounded like he was choking, so Azem hastily set him down. Years worth of affectionate hugs were not meant to be dispensed all at once. Azem looked their dear dear friend up and down. Hythlodaeus was robed, but had not put on his mask. Azem relished the chance to see his face, and without much thought gave a peck on his cheek. Hythlodaeus laughed.
“An assault, truly! Maimed and then taken advantage of? What have your travels done to you, dear friend?” Hythlodaeus said with a laugh in his voice, studying Azem. “Judging by your letters not all of your adventures were pleasant.”
Azem matched their friend’s smile. “Where do I start?” they said. “Do you have time this evening? I have so many things I want to tell you that a single evening will only be enough to recount the highlights.”
“No need to limit yourself! You can have monopoly on all my evenings for as long as you are in Amaurot, so much I have missed your sunny self! Hades should be delighted, though he was a bit cross you missed his oath of office.”
“Ah…” Azem’s face fell and heart sunk. “I saw him last night. He was …fairly upset. Sounded like he’d prefer to never see me again.” Azem wasn’t sure how to relay the complicated emotions of shame and sadness, so they attempted a smile. “He must detest me now.”
“Oh, what has that idiot done now?” Hythlodaeus took Azem’s hand and brushed it with his thumb. “I’m needed at the Bureau today, but we must talk in the evening, friend. It might be best if you avoid Hades today. Gods know he will avoid you.”
They ate a simple breakfast of fruits and vegetables from Hythlodaeus' garden. The two of them exchanged farewells in front of the house, and separated for the day.
White and fluffy clouds wandered the bright blue sky. Sunlight bounced on the window glasses and metal decorations of the tall buildings, the reflections speckling the pavement.
The temperature was just right, as it always was in Amaurot. The climates of the fifty-four cities were precisely controlled. Be it summer or winter, the temperature was always perfect for wearing their customary robes. Rainy days were scheduled months in advance, so that nobody would be caught unaware. To be honest, Azem thought it all a little dull. Oh, what they wouldn’t do to see Amaurotines struggling to move through powdery piles of snow, sweating under their stuffy robes, or holding on to their masks in a stormwind. Emet-Selch would hate it.
Azem crossed the river, and near the center of the city, around the same area where they had found Emet-Selch last night, an Amaurotine was fixing a broken crater in the pavement.
“What happened here?” Azem asked, oblivious.
“Oh, Azem!” the Amaurotine seemed surprised and straightened herself. "The street has been damaged overnight. I’ve yet to find out how this came to be, but all the same it ought to be fixed.”
“Dreadful, who would do such a thing?” Azem exclaimed. “What if a familiar trips and falls into it? If it’s okay, let me help.”
“If you insist, though you must be very busy?"
“Not at all!” Azem lied, kneeling down to repair the severed aether of the fragmented rocks.
The sun had climbed many degrees higher when Azem at last reached their destination. They settled to wait in line at the Estate Manager’s building.
Azem’s name was called, and they approached the stone desk. Behind the counter the estate manager spoke with wonder: “As I live and breathe, Azem in flesh! Last I heard, you were on the other side of the star."
“You’re making me sound like some natural wonder,” Azem replied, trying to not sound embarrassed. “I only arrived yesterday, but it’s lovely to be back and see that nothing has changed. Except for, well, one essential thing has — I don’t know where my apartment was relocated in the last lottery. Do you know its address?”
In order to keep everyone’s living conditions absolutely equal, Amaurotines held lotteries to rotate the residential houses and apartments. Every ten years. It should motivate everyone to take good care of their living spaces, said those who probably knew better. Azem had been traveling when the last lottery had occurred. As well as the one before that, too.
“It’s my job to know every address,” the estates manager declared proudly, and summoned a ledger to their hand.
“I just pray the house is a small one,” Azem said, anxiously waiting for the clerk to check the ledger. “The last time I got a house with a garden the crops did not survive long. I haven’t had the face to go see if the new resident managed to make them bear fruit again. I can’t forget the tomatoes there… When I first moved in, the tomatoes were pristinely red and sweet, but a few years later nothing about them was pristine…”
“Then it seems like you are in luck, esteemed Azem,” the estates manager said. “You have a regular apartment in the Medios Hekaline building. Nearly the top floor. I hope it suits your needs?”
“Blessed be Thal’s sandals, it does!”
Azem walked through Amaurot in the breezy sunny day, took the elevator to the 39th floor in the Medios Hekaline, and entered the correct door.
The first thing Azem noticed was what a great view the balcony had. Sunlight filled the white and bronze room. In the distant horizon, the moisture in the air clouded the blue landscape, indicating the presence of the ocean out of sight.
Azem’s few personal possessions had been brought into the new apartment, by some poor soul. Though few in number, Azem still had more personal property than many Amaurotines. Usually, if an item was worth owning, it was to be made a public concept that anyone could have, and for most this was fine and enough. But what interest would the many assorted souvenirs in Azem's collection hold to someone else, they thought.
The collection of junk was priceless in Azem's eyes. The hoard held a blue pebble from a distant azure beach, there was a dagger engraved with images of Azem wrestling a wind elemental, and there was even a strange mummified finger that crawled around like an inchworm. Items of curiosity and memory that held true value only to Azem. Well, maybe the finger would be of interest to someone else, so Azem had made sure not to tell the Bureau about it. Azem loved letting the finger out of its glass jar to crawl around the floor.
This brand new space, though beautiful, was horribly still and solitary. It held no memories for Azem. Not that the previous apartment did either. In the past when Azem, Hades and Hythlodaeus met, it was much preferable to meet at Hades’ house. In his own home Hades had nowhere to run, so they could revel until the morning with no fear of Hades getting fed up and leaving .
A faded memory pulled Azem away from the room. To another very similar room, the memory of it transparent and frayed.
A memory of a night Hades and Azem had never acknowledged afterwards. During the wild days of their schooling, in the evenings the three of them used to gather for activities mundane and fun with equal excitement.
One evening, the time had slipped their mind. Hythlodaeus had declared to sleep on Hades' couch. Azem had suggested there was enough room in Hades' bed for two to sleep a night, and Hades had not protested. During the night that followed, Azem had woken up. In the dark, they found they were being gently held by the sleeping Hades, and Azem too was holding on to his robes. Back then Azem was unaccustomed to sleeping outdoors, where wild animals would rejoice in attacking an unaware prey. Untrained, they would not have noticed if Hades had rolled closer, and intentionally caged Azem in his arms. But it was also possible Azem was the culprit, in accident having pulled Hades into an embrace.
The memory had never left Azem – the mystery of it’s circumstances troubled them to this day. They were not sure if Hades remembered. The two of them had never spoken about it. Azem didn't figure out why the thought of speaking about the night made their head swim and hands sweat, until much later.
Azem exhaled deep at the memory.
On the walk back through the city, Azem avoided the centrum with the many Bureau buildings Emet-Selch might conceivably work at. It also served the double purpose of avoiding the other Convocation members. Azem had not forgotten the Convocation expected them to finish a report or two.
When Hythlodaeus returned home in the afternoon, he found Azem elbow deep in the garden soil.
“By Byregot’s pants, what are you doing?” he exclaimed. “What has my garden done for you to uproot it?”
“Welcome home!” Azem greeted, shielding their eyes from the sun. “I’ve revitalized the soil! And, you’ll be surprised – some poison sumac has started growing under your raspberries. I thought I’d move it into pots so it won’t suck the life out of anything else.”
“It’s scarlet moko grass, it is supposed to grow there!”
“There? What, under the raspberry? Why would it grow in the shade?”
“It’s a new variety!” Hythlodaeus said, exasperated. “Or, well, it’s been around, but come to think of it you haven’t done much gardening lately.”
“I… I thought…” Azem said, and in light of this shocking news examined the devastation in the garden. “Oh. Hmm. I should have asked you first. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. Actually, I think if we bring the moko grass inside, the garden might have room for something new. I’ll help you.”
Hythlodaeus squated next to Azem and conjured fresh soil for the half-potted scarlet grass. Azem sighed and shoveled soil back into the holes they had just dug.
“How was your day?” Hythlodaeus asked seemingly casually, but Azem knew they had his full attention.
“Unlike any other, but a little less so than I’d hoped,” Azem replied honestly. “I walked, and after getting back I needed something to do; Your garden was my chosen victim.”
“For what it’s worth, I’ve always been happy to be one of your chosen victims.” he laughed. “And how do you feel today about your third victim?”
Azem’s hands lost their purpose mid scoop. “You joke, maybe, but he has reason to feel like a victim. Hyth, I think something is off with me. During the day I helped someone, I saw beautiful clouds, and although I made an error of judgment, I still helped your garden grow.”
Hythlodaeus coughed. “Indeed, no plant would dare to not grow after being exposed to your aetherial reserves. As well as your determination to destroy all that is green.”
“I had a good day — ” Azem continued, picking up speed, “ — but it didn’t feel like anything. Amaurot is my home, I longed to be back every day, but today it felt empty. When I was traveling, riding over mountains of sand and through fields of ice, the warm memories of home gave me strength to make even the impossible decisions with only losing answers to choose from.”
Hythlodaeus was listening intently, and with the floodgates open Azem kept going.
“You know? In times of doubt, when it felt like I couldn’t tell right from wrong, I used to imagine what Hades would say. Things like ´you can’t fight a volcano, be sensible´ or ´hastiness is for chocobos, and you are not a chocobo´." Azem paused to smile with Hythlodaeus, who was chuckling at the impression.
"I should have told him when I had the chance.”
“Told him… something?” Hythlodaeus asked, and Azem felt like a bug under his knowing purple gaze.
"That I… Um. Hm."
Azem stammered. This was a step too far. Belatedly, Azem realized they couldn’t bear to pry free the feelings that hid behind a tall dam, refusing to be revealed. Azem couldn’t reveal they thought about Hades every day, longed to hear his voice, and longed to hear his unerring and biting words. Couldn’t openly share that they wouldn’t mind spending the rest of their near-eternal life with him. Couldn’t bear to speak out loud how they could always be certain that Hades’ judgements were right and just, in a world where the only thing for certain was Amaurot’s agonizingly nice weather.
Hythlodaeus hummed, the color of his soul bright and curious. Azem’s ears heated up. No doubt Hythlodaeus could see their feelings dye the color of their soul, despite the words having been swallowed.
“H…Hyth… Please don’t tell him," Azem’s voice came out squeaky.
Hythlodaeus shook their head. ”If your years away helped you realize this, then I’d say those years were worth it! Yes, sure, the enormous contributions to Etheirys have also been worth it, but I am incredibly biased in your favor.”
Azem buried their head in the raspberry bush.
“Hades is an idiot, don’t mind him,” Hythlodaeus said teasingly, his expression hidden by the raspberry. “Is this not a chance to dive into the unknown? Don’t you thrive on the chance to experience the never-seen-before, and love the danger and the risk? When have possible negative outcomes ever gotten greater weight in your mind? You can do it, you can surmount the insurmountable, you can win Emet-Selch’s love and favor!”
Azem threw a fistful of earth at Hythlodaeus. “Gods, be quiet!!! ”
“Hey!” Hythlodaeus yelled back. “I may not be an angel of truth of Hades' calibre, but can you say I'm wrong? Azem of bold and brave deeds?”
“Bravery won’t get me through this, unless you think punching Hades is the answer? Against him I am powerless…”
“Haa! On that matter you are mistaken! There happens to be a certain sophisticated martial art of punching that will be the heaven sent solution to your troubles. And I happen to be a master.”
Azem dared to peek out of the raspberry bush.
“I call it the…” Hythlodaeus paused dramatically, “the Art of Pestering !”
Azem’s mouth hung aghast, unable to be closed.
Hythlodaeus scooted closer and grabbed Azem’s hands to shake them. “With these hands you can show him you are sorry, and tell him the things you regret not telling! He will forget his anger once you give him a couple of these figurative punches! How about it? Do you accept my tutelage?”
Azem had gone limp, Hythlodaeus’ enthusiasm shaking them figuratively and physically.