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Office Romance in Utopia

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All evening and all night Azem spoke with Hythlodaeus. They shared stories, gossiped about things that should not be gossiped about, and made light of things that were too serious to take seriously. Without Hades to hold the reins, the two of them were absolutely out of control. And, Azem thought they might feel happy to be home after all.

When the sun rose, Hythlodaeus walked Azem to one of the Convocation’s many buildings, waved goodbye and wished Azem the best of luck. Looking back over their shoulder, Hythlodaeus’ smiling form in the shade of a tree was somewhat reminiscent of how Miss Venat used to see them off, back when she still held the seat.

The large public doors of Akademia Anyder were half open in welcome, so Azem sneaked through with a clear conscience. Though they had been sent spiraling from shock and mortification yesterday, today's Azem was the picture of determination. They had a mission, and they had a plan.

Azem was going to ask for Emet-Selch’s help with their overdue reports.

The dreaded reports were expected to detail the final leg of Azem’s latest travels, but after returning to Amaurot finishing them had felt impossibly hard. Whether it was to Loghrif, Mitron or Halmarut that Azem presented their findings and thoughts to, they always commented the reports were either not objective, jumped to conclusions, or didn’t cite sources properly – the complaints were endless. It was not like Azem enjoyed making trouble for them. But it was just that, Azem didn’t know how to convey the rich details of their journey otherwise. How had Miss Venat managed it?

Luckily, Azem knew Hades was liable to give in to requests.

Up a gr and elevator, through many hallways, casually peering into archival rooms, Azem squinted to follow the faint glow of Hades' aether through ceilings and walls. The distinct hue of it was clearly visible and familiar. Sometimes, in moments of weakness during their travels, Azem had liked to imagine they could see him. That they could distinguish Hades' distant soul’s grumpy color far in the horizon, twinkling like a northern star. Compared to those flights of fantasy, tracking him this close was delightfully easy.

In a windowless chamber too dark to read in, Azem found two brightly shining souls. Emet-Selch was speaking with Igeyorhm, the two surrounded by many scampering archivists. 

“To return to the problem of the rhetoric for a bit,” Azem heard Emet-Selch say, “Although it currently has no sound basis, you don’t think the base idea is rooted in intuition, with a grain of truth behind it?”

Azem stayed their step in the doorway. Emet-Selch seemed busy.

“No, I do not,” Igeyorhm replied, sounding bristly. “Isolated instances should not be – no, it’s not this one –” an archivist was offering her a tome to examine, and she waved them away. “Where was I? Yes, isolated instances can’t be directly extrapolated, Emet-Selch.”

“Your worry for the integrity of my method is touching, though unnecessary," Azem could hear the eye-roll in Emet-Selch’s voice, “Certainly, no inappropriate extrapolation is underway. I’m surveying the possible angles of study.”

Another archivist approached Igeyorhm. “No, not this one either, try again,” she said curtly, then responded to Emet-Selch with increased annoyance: “You asked for my opinion and you have heard it. To be completely frank, I wouldn’t have expected you to disregard a senior’s advice on your first day .”

“Nothing of the sort, oh illustrious senior,” the mocking tone in Emet-Selch’s voice could not be mistaken. “I only suspect that, due to having your hands full, you have not had enough time to contemplate my query. I shall endeavor to present it to you more fully formed next time.”

An archivist approached Igeyorhm from between bookshelves with warranted timidness. Igeyorhm took a look at their offerings. “Finally, this is the one,” she said, taking the book and surveying her path to the exit, only to meet Azem’s gaze. “I must continue my day,” she said, “and seems like someone else wants your attention anyway.”

Emet-Selch’s expression was unreadable when he turned to look at Azem in the doorway.

“Azem,” Igeyorhm greeted on the way out, “Loghrif was looking for you. She is very keen to receive your report.” 

“She is? I’m glad she is looking forward to it,” Azem lied.

Emet-Selch was suddenly very interested on an archival shelf labeled `K`, and was decidedly not looking at Azem when they walked closer.

“What are you working on? Glad I don’t have to make sense of it – it sounded complicated,” said Azem with full honesty.

“It is. Did you need something?”

Yes! You have waltzed into my trap , Azem triumphed internally. “Oh, I don’t know, I might. You see, I’m quite stumped; My travel report has not come together as well as I’d hoped."

Emet-Selch hummed and took a book from a shelf. Azem hoped he was listening, and went on: "I suspect some parts might be too convoluted. I’m not sure how to fix them. Last time Loghrif really struggled to make sense of my thoughts – I don’t think she would be very happy to go through that again.”

Emet-Selch grimaced. "What’s this? You are not some unwitting apprentice anymore, you are the one and only Azem! Surely you know how to write a simple travel log?”

Azem was not actually sure they could, but this comment was a malicious uppercut that should be blocked. “I lived three eventful years at the village this report concerns,” Azem replied, “I might erroneously take very unusual things for granted. If only someone would offer me a second opinion…” they trailed off, expectantly looking at Emet-Selch.

Emet-Selch let out an offended grunt. “Gods bellow, I am busy!” The book was slammed atop a pile of tomes with unwarranted roughness.

“But…? Never too busy to help a colleague out?” Azem ventured. “You can just accompany me to lunch and keep your ears open while I think out loud. It would be a huge help!”

“Lunch at this hour? You really have let loose,” Emet-Selch finally looked at Azem, just so that he could scowl in judgment.

Cold yellow eyes under a red mask. Azem couldn’t put a finger on the jumbled emotions it awoke, to be harshly regarded by Hades through the slits in his mask. Regret at lost opportunities, as well as a feeble hope that their relationship could still be saved. There was old familiar affection, as well as a much newer emotion; Something all too enthusiastic and fragile which made Azem want to flinch and avert their eyes. 

Thrive on risk and danger, Hythlodaeus had said. Azem steeled their nerves, held a steady gaze, and crafted their most luminous smile for Emet-Selch to enjoy.

Emet-Selch broke the eye contact, resorting to raising his eyebrows with a sigh. A decisive victory! 

“Make it quick, troublemaker.”

The top floor eatery Azem took their victim to could be mistaken for a small jungle. The eatery was in a prime location: Through the windows you could see the Bureau’s many specialized buildings around the Aetheryte shard. A very industrious someone had chosen to conjure a little too much greenery to liven the place up. Birds, bugs and even small mammals had found the thick underbrush and liana draped trees to their liking, and now great many creatures lived atop a thirty-floor building in Amaurot like it was normal. Nature is amazing, Azem thought.

“Try the dragonfruit! I hear the ninth Lahabrea came up with the Twelve Greatwyrms after sampling it!” 

Azem pushed a plate of sliced pink fruit in Emet-Selch’s direction, who was absorbed in studying a stack of archival writings. The paper pages were already curling in the humid air.

“With the Twelve Greatwyrms already invented, don’t see what inspiration I could gleam from this–” Emet-Selch looked up, “--this blindingly pink fruit.”

“Are you saying that tasting it wouldn’t be very… fruitful?”

Emet-Selch gaped at Azem in disbelief. “I see your travels have made you quite the wordsmith. You won’t be needing my help with the report then I presume?”

Azem only avoided inhaling the fruit all the way to their lungs thanks to decades of experience surviving dangerous situations. A figurative punch from Emet-Selch had just landed, and it demanded a fast counter, lest Azem be knocked out very early in the fight.

“I just thought,” Azem coughed, “that you’d benefit from additional inspiration. Your assignment must be multifaceted if you sought out Igeyorhm, the topmost authority on rhetoric.”

A bright red bird with a comically large beak was examining them from a tree above their table. Emet-Selch was glaring back at it. “It’s hardly an assignment when I chose it myself,” he said. “Resource dependency is a broad subject that should be understood in every situation. A fitting first work for the new Emet-Selch.” He shrugged and turned a curling page.

“Anything really goes for the seat of Emet-Selch doesn’t it?”

“The root of this conundrum is in fear of death. This has everything to do with the afterlife.”

Azem smiled at the large red bird, and moved the plate of fruit closer in case it might want an easy meal. “Don’t feed the animals,” Emet-Selch muttered. 

“I won't, I won't. I saw you borrowed some concept applications from the archive. Are they related?”

“In this case, yes. Do you know of the karakulite?”

“The absolutely magnificent sheeplike creature? Do I! When I leave the island I sometimes make the detour to see them. A perfectly round and fluffy animal really is the pinnacle of creation – I’m in awe of whomever created them.”

“Prized for their wool, milk, meat and bone, they are the perfect livestock. As if this was not enough, they are very easy to herd thanks to their incredibly low intelligence. No wonder the sheep and you get along.”

“Oh? More you the fool for studying the sheep and for asking my opinion.”

“Mmh, very true… But now, the karakulite sheep are in danger of extinction. A new variety of the antelope concept was approved a decade ago, and they were set loose to wander the same valley the karakulite graze on. Presently, the grasses brown from overgrazing. The karakulite starve, pitifully losing the fight for food to the bigger antelope.”

Azem’s horror was genuine: “This is cataclysmic! Would people want to go on living in a world void of a sheep the shape of a perfect sphere?! Not sure if I would.”

“I’m astonished this is the one thing in the world capable of killing you, when nothing else has. But, some will indeed not be able to go on; a species with a humanoid appearance shepherd the karakulite. The two species were created to perfectly complement each other – an ideal symbiosis.”

“How could this have been overlooked,” Azem asked. “Why were the concepts approved and planted in the same valley? It does not sound like a mistake Words of Loghrif would make.”

“They should have known, but they did not,” Emet-Selch sighed. “Carnivorous animals in the valley scared the shepherds, and they allowed the karakulite sheep to breed until the sheep were too numerous for the valley’s plantlife to support. This localized calamity is caused by the actions of creatures that do not know any better.”

“Fear of death, the wish to propagate your species…” Azem wondered out loud. “Characteristics often seen in soul bearing creatures with short lifespans. Very beneficial in the long run.”

Emet-Selch shrugged. “Thankfully, we are less restrained by such primitive needs. Imagine how little we would get done if we were busy propagating .”

“Really? Would it not be enriching? I would pay for the chance to see a dozen small copies of you, all equally grumpy, climbing on you as you try to work.”

“And I would pay for you to keep some of your thoughts private.”

They talked a bit more about the sheep. Azem fetched more vibrant fruits for Emet-Selch to scoff at. So far, Azem’s execution of Hythlodaeus’ devious plan was going perfectly. If he claims to be too busy to see you outside of Convocation business, Hythlodaeus had said, then just make everything work related! He will have no hope of refusing.

With a plan and a goal, Azem had been ready. They had stocked up on smooth segues, convenient by-the-ways and, most importantly, questions that Emet-Selch could never resist deconstructing in extreme detail. To see the dead ends before they quelled the conversation, to keep it all so interesting that Emet-Selch wouldn’t think to leave, Azem felt like the battlefield was pulsing exactly as they hoped. Emet-Selch not noticing their game was a testament to Azem’s expertise, they thought.

The sunlight speckled through the jungle foliage, painting Emet-Selch’s robe light and dark like a piece of lovingly brushed artwork. At intervals, Azem was spellbound by him. They had seen countless deeply moving sights on their travels, but neither the crystalline astral waterfalls or the morning fog in a realm of the faeries could hold a candle to Hades.

Many more hours than what a normal lunch required passed. Finally, Emet-Selch stormed to the elevator after the large-beaked red bird flew down to make a nest in his white hair.

They had made it outside the building when Emet-Selch stopped mid-step. “You absolute little menace!” he said in astonishment as the realization hit him. “You deliberately avoided the subject of your overdue report! `Just keep your ears open`, rat’s ass!”

Azem faked a look of surprise. “Ohhh, how strange, I completely forgot! There was just too much to discuss in one sitting.” A sunny smile was never amiss, so they flashed one. “I’m seeing Hythlodaeus this evening, but maybe we can try again tomorrow? Maybe we can just sit in a park – the less distractions the better I think? The imminent evening rain might motivate me.”

Emet-Selch ran a hand through his hair. “What am I to do with you? Should I report your unwillingness to do the work you were entrusted with, and see if Lahabrea is as compassionate as I am?”

“Say what you want,” Azem took on a more serious expression, “but I refuse to do poorly the thing which I could do expertly, with a day or two of extra time! Please, your insights are invaluable!”

Emet-Selch huffed, and stayed silent.

Azem watched Emet-Selch focus somewhere far away, considering. Birds cawed overhead, and the Aetheryte shard rotated in the distance.

Any studious Amaurotine you came across would gladly volunteer to plough the fields for ten years, just for a little peek inside the prodigious young Emet-Selch’s razor-sharp mind. And in this moment, Azem especially wished such violations of privacy were possible.

In a disappointing move for the expectant Azem, without a reply Emet-Selch turned to leave with a swish of robes. He flicked his wrist dismissively as a farewell.

“You get one more chance," he said.

Azem smiled. Though Emet-Selch was already walking away, they yelled words of gratitude at the retreating back.

His warning, Azem thought, might have been meant in more ways than one. 

Hythlodaeus rattled a deck of cards a finger’s width from Azem’s ear, making them jump up in their seat.

Azem yelped. “Hyth! You scared me! Why are you sneaking and what have I done?”

“You dare ask?” Hythlodaeus sounded offended. “You happen to be in my house, and you dare to pour our scant shared time into that stack of papers? I’m hurt, I’m shocked, and at this rate I may even become… devastated.”

Azem was indeed inside Hythlodaeus’ home, again. After the lunch, Azem had hurried across the river straight to Hythlodaeus’ front door. Immediately after stepping through the door, Azem had scuttled upstairs into privacy. Suddenly, it hadn’t felt so impossible to finish the overdue reports. The final few incidents of their journey, days spent at a rat-infested lakeside village, had started spinning inside their mind almost on their own, and Azem could freely dissect them onto paper.

Hythlodaeus tapped his foot impatiently.

“Sorry… But, please understand,” Azem said, “the me of tomorrow will be thankful for my diligence today. Come morning, my idea for how to save Loghrif from bewilderment and confusion would’ve evaporated like a drop of sweat on desert sand.”

“I wouldn’t know, the only way I’ve visited a desert is through your tales. Loved the giant sandworms.”

“Ah, the worms, always a crowd-pleaser…”

Azem stretched in the chair. They were seated upstairs at a long desk. The minimalist reading room had two windows to the street, where torchlight illuminated the walk of a single lone Amaurotine. The workspace was never used by Hythlodaeus. He believed firmly in a clearly divided work-life balance, and that Bureau business should be left at the Bureau.

Hythlodaeus’ lips were half pursed in pout, so Azem hurriedly backtracked.

“Have the coastal sorcerers created new cards for the game?” they asked. “I wonder how the additions change the most effective strategies? I’m sure you know already.”

“Ooh? Getting interested?”

“I don’t know, depends on if you plan to crush me with your unfair edge?” Azem squinted at Hythlodaeus’ mischievous smirk.

“No, I haven’t studied the cards, heavens, no no. It wouldn’t have been the same playing without you. I think you may actually have the edge this time – the new additions to the game were inspired by you and Miss Venat’s explorations. Would you like to see?”

They shuffled the cards and Hythlodaeus nevertheless delighted in teaching Azem the changed intricacies of the game.

Halfway through the game (Hythlodaeus was winning), Azem took a few minutes to think about their next move. To play red now, or to build for a stronger white table, but what about the dead commander… Azem racked their brain. Hythlodaeus’ banter had dwindled. Azem glanced at him from behind the hand of cards. Hythlodaeus had set down the cards, and his smile curled with a thin veil of sadness.

“Our time together will be all too short again,” he said. “You’d think a near eternity was enough, but it never is. Not when you return home for two short weeks and then leave again for years.”

“It’s… I’m. It’s. Hm.” Azem paused.

They didn’t have a good response. Did a good response exist?

It wasn’t enough to say that duty was thousand times more important. It didn’t quite ring true that their reunions would be all the sweeter for the decades spent apart. It hurt. Not being part of your friends’ lives was painful. The three of you had spent your youths together and shaped each other. Azem knew Hythlodaeus’ tendency to delight in the absurd had rubbed on them, and knew Hythlodaeus now loved tropical fruit because Azem at one point ate them every morning. Innumerable tugs and pulls they had subjected each other to, twisting and contorting each other into shapes that slotted them tighter together.

Hythlodaeus, Azem, and Hades, the three of them.

“To change…” Azem finally said. “Is it really inevitable? Out there in the world, it feels like so. Towns fall, mountains shift, oceans dry. The next time I come back I might return to you taking work to bed! I can’t know if you’ll be the same. Hades already… isn’t the same.”

“You don’t remain unchanged either,” Hythlodaeus said. “And don’t worry, the Bureau shall never have a place under my sheets while I breathe!”

“But Hyth… Even the playing cards have changed too much – I’m losing so badly!”

“Hmm. That I can’t deny. Maybe you have a little too much on your mind? Should we pause the game and take a walk? It will rain tomorrow anyhow, so why not play cards then.”

Azem set down the hand of cards. “...Do you think Hades would like to go see the rain with me?”

“Can’t say he is a very keen rain gazer, no. And shouldn’t he instead be looking at you, what with you soon being just a sweet memory to us?”

“How can you say these things with a straight face?”

“Master of the craft, lest you forget?” Hythlodaeus shuffled the cards and pocketed them. The two of them got up, and left for a stroll.

“I asked him to help me with the report, but I ended up making good progress today. Do you think he will notice I'm not in dire need of help anymore?” Azem asked as they walked.

“Trust me, Hades will find much to complain about. But if you are worried, should I come with you? The three of us working on a report, just like the old days!” Hythlodaeus’ smile was bright in the starlit night, and Azem’s heart ached at the kind gesture.

“Yes! Please, please do.”

That night, Azem had a dream. 

Hythlodaeus had conjured another bed for Azem in his bedroom. Azem had soon crashed on it, and in few breaths was out, like a matchstick in a storm.

In the dream that soon followed, Azem was standing upright in the dark. It was pitch black, too dark to see in. A cacophony of insects’ nightly song barraged their ears. The vividly green and moist smell of plants stung their nose. The humid air made even their fingers stick together. A dark jungle.

They were late for something, so they ran. Long leaps over the invisible plantlife hidden by darkness. Ahead, a yellow light shone. Azem ran, and crashed headfirst into the source of the light.

Hades grabbed their shoulders, and grimaced. “You absolute clot. Running won’t get you where you should be.”

A yellow light reflected on the mask hanging at Hades' chest. The white color of it familiar from their youth.

“Why wouldn’t it? I’m fast," Azem said.

Hades let go of one squeezed shoulder.

“Because where you should be… is right here.”

Hades touched his fingers to Azem’s chin, and tilted their face up. Yellow eyes shone in the dark, illuminating his unmasked face. His hand was so cold it burned. Azem was paralyzed.

The inevitability of the two of them moving closer floated in the air. But instead, Hades roughly turned Azem’s head from side to side, as if inspecting a concept submitted for approval.

“Lacking. So very lacking,” he said. “Some savior of the star you are, when you don’t even know why I’m mad with you.”

“But you will not tell me…”

Hades leaned closer. Azem’s honed reflexes said to run, said to hide and to escape the danger and the risk. But the traveler remained paralyzed in place, as Hades leaned in to graze Azem’s ear with his breath. Words were whispered, important words that were surely the answer to everything. Hades raised a hand, pulling on Azem's mask, lifting it to reveal written on their face all the secrets that must not be known, no, not before – 

Azem was startled awake. The state of alertness appropriate for springing up to fight a horde of wild animals surrounding a traveler's campfire.

The birds outside sang with the morning. Hythlodaeus was still asleep.

The humidity of the dreamed jungle clung, and Azem’s face felt hot.