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Office Romance in Utopia

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Azem was dying of stage fright while waiting for Loghrif to finish schooling her apprentices.

It was the morning after the intense preparation session with Hythlodaeus and Hades. The sun had risen abnormally early, causing confusion. An hour too early and a few degrees to the north. But such oddities could usually be blamed on strange experiments performed inside the Weather Tower, and despite the solar impossibility, life went on. Azem had barely slept, and at the unusually early crack of dawn they rushed out to find Loghrif. There was a lot to get through before the date with Hades.

Azem’s mad dash to the Words of Loghrif building was eventful. First they were interrupted by an inquisitive schoolchild harboring a dozen tricky questions, followed by a panicked trio whose insectoid concepts had escaped and needed capturing. Once Azem reached their destination, it was decidedly no longer the crack of dawn.

The facility was a cloud-piercing building, famously filled top to bottom with enclosures for common and unusual concepts alike. Inside, Azem found Loghrif in the shadow of a humongous gray animal, which had a fifth limb in the place of a nose.

Azem sneaked inside the enclosure hall. Loghrif was amidst conjuring a new version of the large animal for an audience of twenty awed students.

“Take care to replicate the defining characteristics exactly,” Azem heard Loghrif tell her students. “Nothing pays homage to the original creator better than a faithful recreation. But, allow your own handiwork to shine through too. This maridphant already exists—your creations should be new.”

Loghrif finished conjuring the second gray animal. This individual sported smaller ears than the original. The students paired up and began working on their own large mammals. Free for a moment, Loghrif noticed Azem.

“Dearest Azem. How have you been?” she said.

“If I say ´good´, that will make my tardiness seem rather unwarranted, won't it?”

Loghrif muffled a laugh. “Sure, so please, refrain. I’ll believe you’ve gone through seven hells to be here and won’t have the heart to be mad. You are one of a kind—no choice but to wait when it comes to you. I don’t dare to hope this will be the last time you are late either.”

Azem laughed, hoping it would alleviate their nervousness. “Although it is overdue, the final tale from my most recent journey is almost complete. Would you have time to look it over? Your approval would be invaluable.”

Loghrif patted hay and dust from her robes. “At least this time you ask for my approval first. Which is preferable. Hopefully I don’t hurt you by saying this, but I will not allow your attempts at zoology to go public, not before I have approved them. I’m sure you understand? Last time was unfortunate.” Loghrif’s smile turned sinister, and Azem shivered.

Overall, the scolding was much more tolerable than expected. Azem appreciated the no-nonsense attitude of the animal expert, and trusted her judgment. Azem begged her to wait only a few more hours, and rushed to record the tale.

The recording rooms were small, soundproof, and otherwise featureless. The serenity of them was optimal for focusing your mind. Or, it should have been. Azem sat cross legged in the quiet room, failing to meditate and empty their head. With nothing external to focus on, Azem’s thoughts were scattered like the papers in front of them.

Azem rearranged their notes in a semicircle and concentrated. The very beginning of the tale had been rigorously reworded by Hades. The introduction was basically all his authoring, and Azem was of course grateful. But, unsurprisingly, when Azem focused on the words, Hades’ voice filled their head. Oh, how weak the report’s construction was, and how exactly additional clarity could be achieved. Azem knitted their brows together tight enough to meld them into one.

Unfortunately, mind elsewhere or not, Azem was on a tight deadline. Despite the bouncing thoughts and a fair certainty that this might not end well, they initiated the recording.

It did not end well.

Few hours later, Azem met Loghrif in a private study room. Loghrif was viewing the freshly-baked crystal recording with an amused expression. Azem’s face felt freshly-baked too, and they feared its color currently rivaled that of their Convocation mask.

Loghrif laughed at something in the recording, making Azem jump up in their seat. They seriously considered an early return to the star.

When Loghrif finally opened her eyes, her face was aglow with glee.

“Oh my, I wouldn’t have known,” she said.

Azem deflated like a balloon. “Gods, let me die, it is over…”

Loghrif spun the orange crystal in her hand. “The tale itself was extraordinary. I am astonished at your improvement, but. Hm. The rose-colored visions of Emet-Selch between the lines were rather distracting.” She then had the gall to chuckle. When would the humiliation end?

Considerable amounts of dubious material had slipped into the recording, much more than Azem had feared. It was normal for thoughts to wander, and not unusual for strange visions to color the tales inside crystals. The crystals recorded memories first and foremost, not messages. It was standard procedure to have another pair of eyes check the contents for this exact reason. Unfortunately, the nature of Azem’s misrecordings was personal, and embarrassingly earnest.

Their head spun with the effort of finding a good excuse. “You misunderstand. I had only two hours, and I swore to you I’d be done without any delay, and in a week I’m leaving for the arctic north, and…” Azem finished deflating, slamming their head on the table. “I’ll clean up the …mess. The first chance I get.”

“And when exactly would that be? Next century?” Loghrif leaned closer conspiratorially. “Let me do you one better; I’ll help you, and in return there’s a small thing I could use your assistance on. You will help me, won’t you?” Phrased like a question, but Loghrif must have known Azem would not refuse. She sounded so pleased it was scary. “Let me just inform my students that something realm-shattering suddenly came up.”

Loghrif was delighted by the drama.

“And you can’t tell him because…?” she asked later, while scrubbing some vaguely sweet image of Emet-Selch from the recorded tale. She channeled aether inside the recorded memory, twisting and scraping like the aether she wielded was a cleaning utensil.

“Tell him? Under these circumstances? I’m never home, I’m leaving again soon, and for some strange but probably very logical reason he is mad at me.” Azem concentrated on overwriting another florid portion in the crystal with the intended blankness. In this bit of misrecording, Hades’ disembodied voice dissected what exactly had been wrong with saying the rats were ´viscerally vicious´. Azem tried to not think about all the miniature scenes Loghrif had seen—the full reality of that might have been enough to make Azem become a hermit on the spot. They scrubbed the portion clean with vigor.

“Emet-Selch, mad at you?” Loghrif said. “Is that unusual? The way he talks about you, he always seems a little displeased.”

“Ah, but that's just his way of– Hm." Azem stopped to think, and swallowed. Usually, his harsh words originated from worry and care. But since Azem’s return, all signs pointed to Hades being angry with them. In addition to the openly expressed disappointment after Azem had turned up late for the oath, there had been an unusual distance between them, and always avoidance from Hades. But strangely enough, he had also agreed to the concert with very little pestering. Currently, Azem was not sure of their standing in his eyes.

Azem cleared their throat. “Well, soon he will be rid of me for a good while. A relief for him surely. No more of me tricking him into doing things that are fun. Ever since his ascension he seems to hate the idea of fun.”

“Hmm, I wonder,” Loghrif said, trailing off.

Azem scooted over to give room for Loghrif, who seemed to take great joy in eviscerating another vision of Emet-Selch. In this one he looked to be deep in thought, a white strand of hair escaping over his forehead very charmingly, eyelashes fluttering over yellow eyes, oh, Gods, this was humiliating…

“When are you leaving?” Loghrif asked, satisfied with the squeaky clean portion of recording. “Towards the far north?”

The anxiety at the fast approaching journey effectively cooled Azem’s beet-red face. "In a week,” they said. “Headlong to risk and danger once more. Much better than writing reports, so at least there’s that. I can’t be sure when I will be back. I haven’t dared to inform Had– Emet-Selch.”

“Hmm. Separated all too soon, the pathos of it… You don’t get lonely?”

“Thankfully I have my dear steed, my sole companion. And I get to meet so many people out there that I don’t have time to be lonely.” Azem smiled.

“Traveling on horseback? No hopping into the aetherial sea? Would that not be much more expedient?”

Azem had been focusing on the orange crystal, and now it sounded like they had missed some important context for a strange question. “Y-yes? No? Maybe someday a faster way to travel will be invented, but last I heard it hasn’t come to be. It would be a difficult undertaking to invent something faster. And anyway, what’s important is the journey rather than the speed at which you reach your destination…”

“But didn’t– Wait, so you …don’t know?” Loghrif seemed puzzled.

The confusion spread to Azem. “I don’t, no? If something of the sort was invented I’d hope I was told. I tend to journey a lot more than the average person.” Azem desperately hoped Loghrif would at the very least laugh at the joke, but she remained thoughtful.

“Aah. So it’s like that. Well,” Loghrif nodded, “I misspoke.” Azem thought she must have misunderstood something, and left the matter alone. The topic made their heart ache anyway.

Thanks to Loghrif’s centuries of experience cleaning recordings made by fresh-faced students, the two cleaned Azem’s tale into an experience that could be even described as very good. Towards the end, Loghrif commented many times on the excellency of the tale. Azem was relieved; if the foremost authority on the matters of terrestrial life said so, it really must be an exemplary tale well told.

As was agreed, in return Azem assisted Loghrif. The task she had in mind was not as dire as they’d have thought: she wanted Azem to coach her apprentices.

The students from the morning had finished their recreations of the large gray mammal. Loghrif herself stepped out on `urgent business`, leaving Azem to enrich the lives of the youngsters, free of supervision. Azem was delighted with the chance to teach. The rapt audience feverishly took notes as Azem recounted how in the wild, maridphants were actually great swimmers, so a version that was pushed even further in the aquatic direction would be a great project for a collaboration with the aquatic Words of Mitron.

The students were very insistent that Azem wrestle each of their creations, to see whose had turned out the strongest. Azem was in the middle of vertically suplexing the fifth such arcane entity when a horrible realization hit them.

“Excuse me, little one, what time is it?” Azem asked, and death dropped the maridphant onto its neck. The animal didn’t seem thrilled with the way the match went, and its creator rushed to heal it.

“The time?” One youngster eagerly came forward. “The sun has just set, esteemed Azem.”

Azem had forgotten. The concert.

They had been swept away by the relief of finally having finished their overdue assignment, and wrestling new inventive concepts conjured by starry eyed youngsters had been enough fun to make them forget the time. Now it was evening, and they were late.

Hasty farewells had barely been exchanged, and Azem was off. They dashed into the hallway, towards a window, out a window, and zoomed off into the darkening sky at the speed of a meteor. The Amaurotines walking down below wondered who could be in such a hurry, on such a peaceful evening.

Altima’s alabaster hall shifted into view from behind another building, and Azem adjusted course downwards. A crowd was gathered at the base of the white building, and a familiar bright soul was shining at the center of it. An inhale, exhale, and Azem closed the distance at their meteoric speed. But unfortunately, once you got up to speeds such as these, stopping was no longer an easy task. Usually for Azem, going down until you naturally came to a halt against a hard surface did the trick.

They landed in front of the ornate building, and dust billowed.

Azem panted and wobbled up. Even such a short burst of zooming through the sky had exhausted a large portion of their aether. One of the reasons it wasn't widely utilized, the difficulty of stopping being another. They scanned the gathered crowd for a red mask, for that grumpy glowing soul–

“What. Is. This,” Hades’ voice came from behind. Azem turned around to see Hades cross his arms, surrounded by a curious crowd.

“Sorry…. I didn’t mean… to make you wait…” Azem panted and swayed towards him.

“Hm. I didn’t wait long. The sunset caught me unaware, loathe I am to admit. I could have sworn there was still an hour of light left. But, the musicians were on time. They are tuning their instruments.”

“Great, we might barely not miss the opening, let's be quick,” said Azem.

Hades raised a hand to impede their path. “I will not let you leave a mess behind wherever you go. Clean this up.”

The rubble and gravel laden street entered Azem’s field of consciousness for the first time. The crash landing must have been more forceful than they had thought. How hadn’t they noticed?

Azem hastily fixed the pavement while Hades stood watch sternly. Any help offered by the bystanders he refused. Allow the rowdy child to let out steam before the concert , he told the considerate Amaurotines.

As the pair walked inside the echoing building, Hades made sure to let Azem know that he had not been happy to wait. While standing outside the hall Hades had been cornered by an enthusiastic art lover, who had hoped to engage the seemingly idle Emet-Selch in a debate. They had been curious about his thoughts on the relationship of the dead to the art they created while alive. A crowd had gathered to observe the heated exchange of suppositions. Hades said he hated every second of it, but Azem had to wonder…

The interior of Altima’s Hall was white stone. The first Altima, the architect of the artful building, seemed to have abhorred right angles; ceilings tilted, corners were never exactly a quarter turn, and the walls were decorated with triangular engravings. Music echoed through the halls. The first opus of the night was already being performed.

The two waited by the double-doors of the hall for a break in the performance. After a lively final verse, they sneaked to their seats while the musicians prepared to play the next arrangement. The audience turned to acknowledge and greet the two Convocation members, some even looking eager to engage in conversation. Azem smiled at them but kept going, all the way up until the topmost balconies, praying they would get at least some privacy.

Only a little light reached their pair of seats in the angular balcony, but sound was not impeded. The reality-defying nature of the hall meant that all the seats had equally great acoustics. The performers blasted off the second piece with oomph, and Azem was blown away. 

Hades grew more and more captivated as the piece went on. At a similar pace, Azem’s confusion deepened. The composition didn’t always have a clear melody, and the pianist seemed to be scrambling for their life to keep up with the fast saxophone.

Out of the corner of their eye Azem discreetly watched Hades. He had a hand to his chin, and his fingers brushed against his lips, parted in thought. In the dim light he looked sculptural, like he belonged in one of the building’s lengthy corridors lined with breathtaking marble statues. He started clapping, and Azem realized the song had ended. 

“Very… innovative?” Azem ventured while clapping, gauging Hades’ opinion.

“Innovative? Maybe, but unusual? Most definitely,” Hades said. “It was a trial by fire for the aspiring pianist. This piece is notoriously difficult to improvise around because of its unusual chord progression, and the pianist managed it with a crystal clear quality to the playing. A novel take on a classic.” Hades paused to side-eye Azem. “Your look of bewilderment gives me a bad feeling.”

“It’s been so long since I heard Amaurotian music, and I never prioritized my bard’s training to tell you the truth…”’

“Really,” Hades sounded astonished, “but you managed to lure the rats away with a song? I had assumed your playing had improved since our academy days, although your talecraft obviously has not.”

“Ah, no, mimicking the rats with music was surprisingly a simple trick, no virtuosic skill required… Would you like to hear? You might think it novel.”

“And let you summon a thousand rats right here? No, and please warn me if you ever get the hankering to play a little tune so that I know to stop you.”

The next few songs featured a melody that was easier for Azem to grasp. Between the songs Hades shared more details and analysis with minimal prompting. He really seemed to enjoy the live music. Despite the passing of decades, Hades still retained the same reverence towards the arts as he had when the three of them were in the academy. After having it pointed out, Azem even noticed a leading motif that was present in many of the pieces, and thought they could grasp a story being told with no words.

A calm mellow piece filled the hall. The tune brought Azem’s thoughts to a campfire, with only the stars for company, to the peaceful moments before sleep. The dim lights of the balcony combined with the comfortable seat had made Azem’s eyelids the weight of lead. They hadn’t had a good night's sleep since arriving in Amaurot, and the day's many events had taken a toll on their aetherial reserves. And so, they closed their eyes...

Thunderous applause filled the hall, and Azem stirred from their nap. They were leaning left, and their cheek was pressed against soft fabric over a warm shoulder.

“At least clap and pretend you were listening,” Hades said softly. Though the words were chiding, he did not sound angry.

Azem straightened and tried to shake the grogginess. Their cheek was warm where it had leaned on Hades’ shoulder. The fabric had probably left an imprint. “Think I dozed off for a little bit,” Azem said, clapping along with the audience.

“A bit? I don’t know how you managed to sleep through the combined force of ten saxophones, but you did. For three songs. You have missed the finale too.”

The nap had not felt that long, as was often the way with naps. To Azem it had been just a few seconds, but in reality such a long time had passed. Had they been leaning on Hades’ shoulder the whole time?

“Why didn’t you wake me up? I was here to learn!” Of the many questions in Azem’s mind, this one seemed the most neutral.

Hades huffed. “The appreciation for the arts must come from within. I cannot force you. Especially not when you are running on fumes.”

So he had noticed. Azem’s heart beat under their sternum, more rapidly than was necessary for sitting still. When Azem had accidentally touched him in the park he had reacted violently, going so far as to slap Azem away. After such a denial, one could safely assume that their advances were repulsive. Had Hades shown compassion despite the personal discomfort?

The concert was over, and the audience flooded the stage to congratulate the performers and debate with them. The young pianist with crystal clear playing was carrying enough flowers to feed a herd of sheep. Some audience remained in their seats, as did the two Convocation members.

“Should I take you home? Seems that you could use rest,” Hades asked, still softly, almost with kindness. His tone contrasted with the timeless frown of his red mask.

Azem had not expected this reaction, and felt caught in an ambush. “I’m sorry about, um, just now. I must have been tired.”

“Mm, does your mortality shock you?” Hades gazed down at the concert-goers below mingling. Tranquil laughter traveled through the hall. “Your mortality…" he continued, more quietly. "I wish you paid mind to it more often, or the next time you leave for unknown lands far away I will go bald from worry.” 

Azem’s heart jumped to their throat. “You worry? Enough to go bald? Where's your trust in my skills? I'm a little hurt.”

“I will not repeat myself. Your unusual occupation being the way it is, unvoiced thoughts are better off being said. So," Hades looked decidedly away. "I have more or less forgiven you for missing my oath of office.”

The rapid fire revelations made Azem’s head spin, and they were glad to be sitting down.

“And I seem to have missed my chance once more,” Azem managed to say. “I’ve wanted to apologize. For being late. But you have beat me to it, forgiving me before I could even beg for it.”

Hades waved a hand in dismissal. “It’s fine. I’m sure the reason for your lateness is quite the tale as well? Regale me with the details of it some day.”

Missing the oath had been forgiven, and Hades was acting so kind it was almost scary. Azem couldn’t believe that Hythlodaeus had been right, and that ceaseless pestering had really been a fruitful method to seek forgiveness. The concert hall was still abuzz with conversation. So far the uppermost balcony had offered the two privacy.

“Right." Azem wasn’t going to give their face time to redden, and hastily thought back to the events they'd faced en route to Amaurot. "The day of your oath, I was flying home when a small creature in a field of flowers waved to get my attention: a young gobblin. Would you like to hear what happened?”

“Yes, go on. Was their village in peril? Their people about to go extinct?” Hades rested his chin on a hand and looked almost amused.

“Not exactly, no. The gobblinfolk’s sense of smell is very sharp, acute enough that it has turned into a curse. The gobblin could smell me coming from malms away, but up close my odor was too much for him to bear. He had been looking for a new flower to stuff his nose with, to stop unwanted creature smells from driving him mad. The little one was nearly in tears, so I helped him look for something obnoxiously fragrant. But no flower I presented him was quite right, so I had to fly over a couple mountains, and when finally I brought back a suitable flower it was already evening. But the little one was happy, at least until the flower wilts…”

During the story Hades had gone quiet. At long last, he asked: “You were late because you were picking flowers?”

“It was a small task, maybe, but who would have helped if I was not there?”

“Nobody? Is it not natural selection at this point if the gobblin perished? You have no responsibility towards it!”

Seeds of confusion were sown, and Azem was not sure if Hades was joking. “What are you saying? I am Azem, and I have a duty to protect every living creature on this star!”

“Listen to yourself,” Hades raised his voice, and it did not sound like he was joking. “You ran an errand for a creature with a lifespan so short it will not be around the next time you return! An inane errand, with a temporary solution. You can’t help every pathetic creature on the star, and I hope you don’t plan to?”

"I was rather pressed for time, you'll have to excuse me for not coming up with a long-term solution."

"Well, why not? You were already late, what's a little more? Hells, why not live with the gobblins until evolution fixes what's clearly broken!"

Azem stood up. “You had your oaths, and I had mine! I swore to scour the realm for those in need, and I will not turn a blind eye if someone comes to me in tears!”

Hades rose from his seat with force. “Stars above, Azem, you are one person! I had thought that the reason for your tardiness was grander, that hundreds of lives depended on it, and so I was ready to forgive, but this? I am at a loss with you.”

A heavy pressure had lowered over them. There was poison mixed in the air, as well as a promise of an explosion if kindling was scratched. Azem’s stomach turned disgustingly. The change in Hades’ temper had been so abrupt, and Azem struggled to understand it. They had thought that Hades would accept the pull and tug of duty, and know that responsibility could take precedence even at inconvenient times. Contributing to the star was the meaning of their existence. The silence stretched, distorting the space between them into an acidic swamp, where the more you struggled the more you sank.

Azem swallowed a rising lump in their throat. “My conviction is really so detestable to you? I admit, I regret that I was slow, but never the fact that I stopped to help. My responsibility is binding, and I am leaving to pursue it a week from now. No short-term solutions, since they seem to sit poorly with you. By the time I’m back you will have swapped houses twice.”

Hades’ yellow eyes were aflame as he snapped to look at Azem. His fist shook with barely contained rage, but when he spoke the words were cold. 

“What am I to you?” he asked, turning with it a bucket of ice over Azem’s head. He didn’t seem to care for any possible reply, like no answer Azem could give would be adequate. Hades circled around his seat and left the angular balcony without looking back.

Down below, the hall had quieted. Many curious heads had turned. Azem waited long enough to be sure that Hades had managed to exit the building, and then ran for the nearest window. They jumped into the night sky. 

Azem jumped from roof to roof, ending up at their own apartment. They crashed through the balcony and landed face down on the floor. A halo of falling glass from the broken window rained around them. After squeaking to a stop, Azem did not get up.

Felt like a corpse, looked like a corpse. In the dark Azem stared into nothingness and contemplated death. They had wanted to protect the star that Hades so loved. But the two of them had changed too much. Azem didn’t seem to be enough for him now, and despite many attempts Azem could not stretch everywhere. Their hands could not protect everyone and they were slow, so slow, always behind in some way…

Azem lay on the floor, mourning the future they had dreamed of sharing with Hades, and fell asleep.

 

In the morning, when the sun was still below horizon, a knock on the door awoke Azem. Their eyes felt sand encrusted, their heart shattered and empty. But someone at the door was waiting, and some indestructible part of Azem was unable to let them down.

They wobbled to open the door, to the sight of an unfamiliar Amaurotine.

“Morning, honorable Azem. Strange how dark it still is, no?”

“What is it?” Azem’s voice was foreign to their own ears.

“Miss Loghrif has sent me to relay an urgent message. It relates to the strange cycle of day and night of late, and a mission you were about to embark on?”

“Get on with it, please.” There might have been a sense of foreboding if Azem had not been numb to everything.

“The anomaly in the lunar-solar cycle has reached Amaurot. The imbalance seems to be growing in strength, increasingly dire for the star. The Convocation in attendance thought it extremely urgent to put an end to the anomaly before it gets out of hand. So, they hope to send you two on the mission even sooner than planned.”

“Two…?”

“I shall read this part straight from the missive? Yes, you, the honored Azem, as well as the esteemed Emet-Selch, who possesses specialized knowledge essential for the solving of this mystery.”

Azem’s ears rang, and in their numb disbelief they couldn’t answer at all.