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Office Romance in Utopia

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

At the root of the immense Words of Halmarut greenhouse, Emet-Selch’s exit from the building was blockaded by Hythlodaeus.

The four apprentices following Emet-Selch ceased their chattering at Hythlodaeus’ approach. The flowerbed's worth of plant specimens the students carried wobbled to halt.

Emet-Selch turned to look at the approaching Hythlodaeus, whose smile was unreadable.

“Hard at work, esteemed Emet-Selch?” Hythlodaeus asked. “Sorry little ones, I will borrow your master for a short bit.”

Emet-Selch deposited a sample plant in one of the apprentice’s already overburdened arms.

“If it’s a ´bit´ on your metric, I won’t be seen for the rest of the day. Well,” he adressed the expectant students. His appointed assistants, as well as avid learners. “I trust you have the samples you need? We reconvene in two days, and I hope you’ll impress me with your findings then. Expect no help from me until then.”

The students nodded, expressions behind the walls of greenery serious, with a hint of eagerness. Emet-Selch hadn’t dared to ask to confirm his suspicion, but half of them looked to be older than him.

The shrubs, plants and hays the four students carried wobbled and bounced as they strolled down the street.

“Heavens, you take apprentices already?” Hythlodaeus gawked after the students.

“I’d far prefer not to, but Igeyorhm insisted,” said Emet-Selch. He half expected one of the students to trip and drop their cargo.

Hythlodaeus looked thoughtful. “She’s so eager to have your bountiful wisdom passed to the younger generation? I wouldn’t have known.”

“That, or eager to have eyes kept on me. I doubt she thought to tell that to the students though; they seem to look up to me .”

“The things you go through!” said Hythlodaeus, failing to stop amusement from slipping into his voice.

A group of Amaurotines walked past them, heading for the glass greenhouse. They greeted the two architects with reverent words, and Emet-Selch forced a smile for them. Recently, he had begun to miss the days of his youth. Back then he could take a stroll through the center of Amaurot without once being interrupted…

Hythlodaeus descended the stairs and began walking away. Emet-Selch had no choice but to follow.

“And? What do you plan to ruin my day with today?” he asked as they walked.

“Ruin?" Hythlodaeus replied. "If only your apprentices knew this is how you treat your friends.”

“But your disrespectful treatment of my time is fine? Revisions, guidelines, educated opinions, many final words, not to forget the brand new studies I must also complete. My to-do list is ever lengthening like some infinitely growing aberration, with many biting mouths anglilng to make the subtle balance crumble.”

“What can I say? Some things should always go ahead of mundane responsibilities, else one may soon cease to be human at all. And in that way, I care for your well-being more than any of your apprentices or admirers.”

Emet-Selch had an inkling where this was going.

“This is about Azem, isn’t it?” Emet-Selch asked. “I know the troublemaker has been staying with you.”

“Bingo. Occupied as you are, you may not have realized, but soon Azem will leave Amaurot for unknown lands far away.”

Emet-Selch neglected to counter the jab – something all too venomous might have escaped if he did.

"The time we have we ought to spend in each other’s company," Hythlodaeus continued. “I, frankly, don’t care how much you are needed elsewhere!”

“You are a step behind,” Emet-Selch said with a sigh. “The troublemaker already demanded I breathe over their shoulder as they toil away in the evening.”

Hythlodaeus paused meaningfully. “And you agreed? Didn’t I just hear that your disciples could expect no help from you? How curious… Is the new Emet-Selch playing favorites?”

Emet-Selch clicked his tongue. “Stop it. Azem would not have allowed me to refuse. Better get it over and done with.”

“All the better then. Allow me to join you. I won’t give you a chance to crush our friend’s good cheer with your overt harshness.”

“If only it were that easy to crush.” 

 

Every district in Amaurot had a park in its center. The middlemost of the districts was an exception; the Aetheryte shard crowned Amaurot’s centrum. In others, the green parks were home to animals, exceptional plant specimens, choice sculptures from Altima’s halls, and round tables inside round gazebos. Picturesque. It wasn’t a competition, but Emet-Selch knew the rest of the fifty-four cities had nothing on Amaurot’s balanced and well considered elegance.

A sundial the size of a rural house dominated the center of this park. Under the round plate of the clock, a heavily stylized but shockingly accurate model of the universe was slowly spinning on its pivot. Concentric hoops represented the arcs of the celestial bodies, the space inside the largest of them big enough to host a soirée in. Every spinning stone that represented a star had been made of a mineral the researchers either knew or expected to be found at the distant planet. Speculative art at its finest.

Under the shadow of the giant sundial, Azem was absorbed in another world. They looked to be writing feverishly, as if the words would escape were they not fast.

To see Azem focus so dutifully made him hesitant to interrupt, but such common courtesy apparently had no sway over Hythlodaeus, who was already at it.

“Good progress since last night?” asked Hythlodaeus cheerily.

“So you two planned this,” Emet-Selch muttered as Azem raised their head from the papers.

“Ha… Emet-Selch! You’re early,” they greeted.

Hythlodaeus had chosen to sit next to Azem in the sundial’s shadow. Emet-Selch folded his robes to follow.

“Early, yes,” Emet-Selch said, “though I’d have preferred later. Hythlodaeus thought it his mission to disturb my schedule.”

“Oh, it’s alright isn’t it?” Hythlodaeus piped in. “The great thing about being everyone else’s boss is that, if you say it’s of utmost importance to lounge in a park for the afternoon, they'll have to believe you!”

Azem smiled at Hythlodaeus. “Your little architects have their hands full.”

“Not at all!" Hythlodaeus said. "The eventual outcome is that it all balances out and gets done. Often my subordinates have told me they are grateful I’m variably late – gives them extra time to work on their assignments, you see.”

Emet-Selch grimaced. “They only tell you that because you are their boss.”

Azem laughed, and Emet-Selch chanced a look at them. The papers on their lap were rustling in the wind. The pages were filled with underlined parts, red arrows and blue circles, and even small illustrative scribbles. Bottled inks of many colors were set on the grass.

“Enough with the niceties,” Emet-Selch said. “You’ve convinced me it’s of paramount importance I whip you into finishing, and so I shall.”

At that, Hythlodaeus was shaken by a violent snorting laughter. Azem blankly stared at the grass, face frozen in a hollow smile.

“Good graces!” Hythlodaeus said amidst wiping tears. "Mind your phrasing! What if children hear?”

“Shall I fish both of your minds out of the gutter while I’m at it?” Emet-Selch made sure to project deep disappointment into his voice. He pinched the bridge of his nose, refocusing. The two jesters always managed to derail him.

As soon as Emet-Selch’s hand blocked his face, Hythlodaeus and Azem exchanged lightning quick glances. They seemed to think Emet-Selch could not see, and communicated in gestures of unknown meaning. He saw Azem squeeze a hand into a tight fist, to which Hythlodaeus enthusiastically nodded back in response. The wordless exchange was soon over.

“So, uhm,” Azem cleared their throat, “What is your opinion on rats? Suppose for a moment that a town was riddled with them, and the people asked you to eradicate them. What would you do?”

Emet-Selch crossed his arms. “Hypothetically? I’d tell them to roll into a lake and sleep on the bottom. The responsibility is theirs, not mine.”

Hythlodaeus laughed. “Give me the choice between being chewed on by a thousand rodents or the help of Emet-Selch, I’d choose the former.”

“Since when?” Behind his mask, Emet-Selch raised an eyebrow at Hythlodaeus. “You were eager to accept my help with the Phoinix.”

Azem shook their head. “Maybe a thought experiment wasn’t the way to go. Useful to know,” they said, scribbling very small words into a margin. Diligent when it mattered, though their handwriting really was too messy to forgive…

Emet-Selch teared his eyes away from the tapping of the pen. “This must be the incident you will present to Loghrif, the topmost authority on terrestrial life,” he said. “I would rather hear how you actually reacted. Most definitely, it will boggle the imagination.”

Azem dipped the pen back into an ink bottle. “If you had been in my shoes, you’d have given your all to help, too.”

“I wouldn’t,” Emet-Selch muttered.

“We are captive, spill us your secrets,” Hythlodaeus urged.

Azem leafed through papers, and pulled one out. “For clarity's sake, I drew out a map of the rat infested town. Here.” 

“Oh, no,” Hythlodaeus said, “I doubt Emet-Selch can see so far. He has stayed holed up inside for decades, away from the sun, and now I fear daylight might pose a challenge.”

Emet-Selch glared at Hythlodaeus, and tried to reach for the page. Instead of letting him, Azem pulled their hand out of reach, wearing a strange expression. They shuffled on the ground to sit closer to Emet-Selch, settling next to him and flattening out a new patch of grass. Emet-Selch's elbow almost touched Azem's. The proximity was considerably too close.

“So here,” Azem said, “is the layout of the town. As you see, here, the rat problem made the people very inventive. Complicated stilted houses and protected aqueducts, they are ahead of their contemporaries by leaps.”

Azem held the paper for Emet-Selch to read, sitting distractingly close. The scribbled monster of a report page had an enlightening illustration of the town’s protections. Enlightening, that is, in equal amounts whether you were sight impaired or not.

“Graphs are usually helpful, I agree” Emet-Selch said, “but with a clause for minimum quality.”

“No no, nevermind the draftsmanship, illustrating the structures was my priority, see here,” Azem was unfazed by his harsh judgment and leaned even closer to point at the drawing. Their shoulders brushed, and Azem’s hand grazed Emet-Selch’s robed thigh. 

Emet-Selch slapped Azem’s hand away.

Apparently, his body had skipped the part where limb movements are checked with the brain for their appropriateness. He was immediately horrified.

Azem looked stunned. The impact of skin on skin had made a loud slapping sound. Hythlodaeus sighed. Azem said nothing.

Emet-Selch's head was buzzing.

Too much, after too long of too little.

The betrayal of Azem not turning up for his oath of office flashed behind his eyes. The absolute disgrace of Azem not having been there to witness his masterwork, his now destroyed River of the Dead. His thoughts circled back to the many nights he had laid awake, in agony, wondering if the idiot was even alive, or dead under an avalanche in a distant land somewhere. And in equal amounts, he had been frustrated that he cared. When apparently Azem cared so little they didn’t even bother to keep their promises.

“...Too close,” Emet-Selch said, swallowing the complicated bundle of thoughts. His voice, thankfully, did not waver. He snatched the paper from Azem, who did not resist. The sliver of space between their shoulders was electric.

The scribbles were marginally less cryptic up close. Emet-Selch wanted to concentrate, but found that he had difficulty dissecting the drawings. His thoughts were scattered. Azem’s hand grazing his thigh dominated his mindscape. The point of contact tingled.

He pretended to study the drawings, and stole a look at Azem. But this time as well, he witnessed a wordless exchange between his two friends. Hythlodaeus was making punching motions, and Azem was responding by shaking their head furiously. Hythlodaeus nodded insistently, and motioned as if pushing a dog outside into the rain. Azem buried their masked face in their hands.

“Well,” Emet-Selch spoke up, unwilling to spy on the strange exchange any longer. “This will do. Make your crystal recording flawlessly clean, and these untrained scribbles can be allowed. I can somewhat glean your intention from them: The people’s sciences were advanced.” He angled himself on the ground to face Azem, putting more distance between them.

Azem snapped their head up. “Great, good, the core idea came through. Moving on,” Azem cleared their throat, apparently ready to move past Emet-Selch’s behaviour. “Where was I? Yes, the townspeople used to worship a rat god.”

Hythlodaeus joined the conversation with such serene calmness that some of it had to be fake. “Quaint, an original faith of a secluded people? Though I’d reconsider the choice of worshiping a pest.”

“Their golden age of rat-worship was millennia ago.” Azem said, more serious now. “The age came to an end when Miss Venat, apprenticed to the Azem of then, journeyed to the town and spread the belief in the Twelve gods.”

“The great conversion,” Emet-Selch recalled. Since Azem was trying to make progress, he indulged the conversation. “Back when I was but a child, the pantheon of the Twelve was a new idea. Gods of sun, thunder, and of good harvests, many creatures already worship forces of nature as deities. It was natural progression to turn their worship back to us, when we are capable of godlike feats. As a joint effort from many departments, a fantastic pantheon was developed, loosely based on the seats of the Convocation. And truly, the pantheon is a work of art - the twelve and half imagined gods have personalities, relationships, domains, and motifs.”

Azem shuddered. “You would not be so enamored if you had spent a good part of your career as the seat holder converting soul bearing creatures into worshiping the Twelve.”

Emet-Selch was sure he wouldn’t, but he was not about to acknowledge Azem’s hardships so easily.

“I hear,” said Hythlodaeus, “that a conflict can sometimes rise between an old belief and the newly introduced idea of the Twelve. The old and new can coexist, but it does not always go smoothly.” He looked at the large sundial in thought. A chilly wind blew past.

“As it was this time,” Azem replied, voice serious. “I was sad to find out, but their faith in the original rat god was in decline. The people wished to exterminate the rats altogether! The rats, of course, resented the shift, and their hatred had metastasised into something new… Originally, the rat god was not real, only imagined, but the resentment of thousands of rodents birthed an actual god. They called it the Rat King. I was in for a surprise.”

Through the afternoon, the three conversed in the rotating shadow of the sundial. Emet-Selch and Hythlodaeus offered help and opinions, and Azem furiously wrote down the relevant ones. Every now and then, Emet-Selch forgot how he had responsibilities of his own waiting. The month’s worth of concept approvals and revisions that waited for his return at his new office, for example. He had intended to get through them in a week, but if the interruptions continued at the current rate that was unlikely.

While they had been lounging on the grass absorbed in each others’ company, the sky had darkened.

A cold drop of rain fell on Emet-Selch’s hand. A few more droplets pattered down on Azem’s papers.

“Time flies in the company of friends,” Hythlodaeus remarked, palms opened to welcome the rain. Azem gazed upwards to meet the falling droplets, and lowered their hood. The papers of the report were forgotten to absorb water.

Emet-Selch conjured a waterproof bubble around himself. Out of courtesy and concern for the ink handwriting, he began extending the magical umbrella over the three of them. But Azem grabbed his wrist, interrupting the spell.

His reflexes were sharp, but they paled to Azem’s. By the time he had seen their hand move, his wrist was already held. But the hold was gentle, as if Azem was wary of breaching his boundaries. But to Emet-Selch their consideration still seemed half-hearted; Azem should have refrained altogether if they actually cared.

Emet-Selch yanked himself free. “What? Does getting your report soaked serve a purpose I’m not privy to?”

In response, Emet-Selch was shocked to witness a warm smile illuminate Azem’s face. He had done little to deserve it, and yet was still blessed with these rays of sun that shone only for him. Emet-Selch thought he better avert his gaze, else this earthly sun blind and ruin him. But, despite the very reasonable fears at the back of his mind, he was unable to look away.

“Can’t you let the rain fall where it wants?” Azem half asked and half requested. “Let Amaurot’s sky express itself. We can continue indoors, how about my apartment?”

Emet-Selch was at a loss for words. He nodded.

Azem and Hythlodaeus gathered the papers and the inks. They marveled at an earthworm that had squirmed up from the ground. Then, the three of them ran.

Rain droplets exploded as they hit Emet-Selch’s waterproof forcefield, drumming loudly. His two friends ran ahead, their feet splashing on the muddy grass. Behind the running two, discreetly, Emet-Selch dissolved the magical umbrella and allowed the water to wet his robes. He would be damned if Azem noticed though; he was not planning to subject himself to this sort of tomfoolery in the future. But, maybe just this once…

The loud drumming was replaced by a small tapping – the sound of water hitting foliage. The greenery of the park recoiled from the million small impacts. Cold water trickled along his forehead and under the mask, tickling his nose. He could sense the park focus its all on sucking in the lifewater.

He picked up speed to keep up with his running friends. Azem’s turned back felt intimately close. Their soul shone with joy. Within this shared experience, an invisible thread connected the three of them. The rain had created a transcendent moment, and Emet-Selch was privileged to share it with Azem. Vaguely, he realized that this moment would never come back. Azem’s stay in Amaurot was halfway over. Who knew if their entangled threads of fate would survive another separation? To him, the falling rain smelled of longing and loss.



Soaking wet and a little cold, the three entered Azem’s apartment. 

Emet-Selch evoked a warming spell to dry them, disregarding Azem’s protests. They sat around Azem’s small table, and returned to work on the report.

The curtains of rain traveled through the city. The gray sky darkened as evening fell.

Hythlodaeus yawned. “The end is in sight, will you make do without my help?”

“Sleepy? Is your age catching up?” Azem grinned.

Hythlodaeus scoffed in mock offense. “How are you one to speak, when it is you who kept me awake? I blame your captivating tales every night, they are just too unbelievable, and I just must stay up to find out the conclusion…”

“Completely no blame on your part, there,” Emet-Selch said. “But, rest if you must. We don’t have much left.”

Emet-Selch scanned his own notes. The core idea of Azem’s report had been clarified during the evening. Together they had made notes to prepare Azem for the crystal recording. The tale of the Rat King really was remarkable, Emet-Selch had realized as they went over the story. Azem had lured the writhing mass of rats away with music, and pacified the malicious god with kindness . He supposed these sorts of strategies only worked for Azem, but the story still illuminated base truths about the star they lived on. Compassion as a virtue was the core value of this tale.

As he raised his head from the notes, he again caught wordless communications between the other two. Hythlodaeus winked at Azem, who grimaced.

“What is it with you two?” he asked. “Spend a few nights with each other and you have developed a secret language. Spare me.”

Azem jolted. “Ah, give me a second.” They scampered up to find a glass for water.

Hythlodaeus waved his hand dismissively and spoke at Emet-Selch: “What weird things are you imagining? Constructed languages take time and expertise to craft! And besides, if I were to design one, I’d not start with sly winks as the base of a lexicon.”

“Indeed,“ said Emet-Selch, ”you would need complicated grammar to be the true dispenser of lies that you are.”

Hythlodaeus shrugged. “Azem, let me know when you are free again. If you leave the city without me seeing you off, I will not forgive you!”

“You’re not staying the night?” Azem came back with a glass of water. “There’s room for the three of us.”

“Ah, no, you see,” Hythlodaeus stretched. “I’d like some alone time with my beloved books. You know?”

Azem choked on water and Emet-Selch rolled his eyes. “Please don’t enlighten me on what that is a code for,” he said.

Like a hurricane, Hythlodaeus whirled around slathering kind goodbyes and liberal hugs. Emet-Selch begrudgingly allowed him. Then the door slammed shut behind him, and the two of them were alone.

“Well. Back to work,” Emet-Selch said, reclaiming a seat at the table. “Our pace should improve with the moodmaker out of the equation.”

Azem returned to the seat across the table. “Lightening the mood is important for a work environment, were you not aware?”

“True, but two court jesters is two too many anyhow.”

Azem laughed. “What about the court scowlers? How come I have not heard of them? Must be because not many desire their company.”

Emet-Selch scowled. Cheeky pup…

He was about to leave it at that, but something made him pause. Maybe it was the exhaustion, maybe it was the dim lighting that made the space feel safe, or maybe Azem’s insanity had finally rubbed off on him. But, he was feeling reckless.

“And? Do you desire their company?” he asked.

Their eyes met. Under the red mask, Azem’s eyes had widened. The traveler’s steady gaze did not flinch. Emet-Selch held his breath.

“Emet-Selch…” Azem whispered.

His concentration faltered, and he broke the eye contact. “...This is getting ridiculous,” Emet-Selch said and brushed a hair away from his face. “For heaven's sake, Hades is fine. Though only in private, mind.”

“Really? Then, Hades.” A warm smile curled Azem’s mouth very becomingly. “I wanted to ask you something. There is a concert tomorrow. Would you come with me? As a seat holder I have a responsibility to be an advocate of the arts, and since the last time I heard music in Amaurot, apparently they have invented something called …big band? My opinion of it wouldn't be at all educated!”

“Hmm? You ask for my company, rather than some musically versed admirer’s? I do not see the point, and the many young architects awaiting my revisions certainly would not either.”

“Really? Shame.” Azem lowered their voice. “I do, in fact, enjoy the company of a court scowler.”

For a heartbeat, Emet-Selch felt salvaged, and ready to believe. Then, cruel reality mowed over the brief relief.

This was a temporary bliss, possibly an untruth, and it came with a cost. The more of this he allowed himself, the more the inevitable separation would pain him. Worryingly, it seemed that currently he did not care.

He leaned back in the chair. “Very well. As a reward for finishing your report, I can grant you that much.”

Azem’s glowing eyes burned through him, and he was glad for the red mask that obstructed half of his face. 

“That’s great,” Azem said, like they really meant it. “I think you will enjoy it, Hades. Hades?” 

“Fine, I get it, stop repeating …my name.”

The mask on Azem’s face made half of their expression unreadable, but their movements were lively as they arranged the tablecloth of scribbled papers into straight rows.

It must have been a decade since Emet-Selch had last seen Azem without a mask. He knew those sunny smiles creased the corners of Azem’s eyes, in a way that was truthfully criminal to keep hidden. Their incredibly serious expressions when something required deep thought were, too, a thing of elegance.

Emet-Selch thought these were normal and balanced thoughts to have about a friend. Nothing unseemly. No lapses in logic. He was not ailed in any way. Azem had not, in fact, captivated him in some unspeakable way. If he had time to get accustomed to Azem’s company again he could prove that this was nothing more than a strange phase, brought on by stress and separation. Surely.

“Well, your apt attempt at distracting me almost worked.” Emet-Selch shook his head. “Last sprint. Read over your plan once more, and the crystal recording of the legendary Rat King should become a heavily referenced masterpiece.”

“Shall I credit you as a co-author? The people would be shocked at your benevolence.” 

“Don't you dare. This will not happen again. I do not have the time to babysit any more indolent troublemakers.”

By the time Emet-Selch was satisfied with Azem’s work, the rain had ceased. Neither of them suggested that he stay the night, and Emet-Selch exited to the wet streets alone. The thought of spending a night next to the sweetly slumbering Azem had made him viscerally uneasy. It almost reminded him of something that had happened a long time ago, but the exact event eluded him.

His steps were light and hopeful, against his better judgment.

Chapter Text

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. 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 abnormally early crack of dawn they rushed out to find Loghrif. There was a lot to get through before the …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.

As Azem's sneaked into the enclosure hall, Loghrif was just 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 greeted warmly.

“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 instance you are late either.”

Azem laughed, hoping it would alleviate their nervousness. “Er. 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. How weak the 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 whispering sweet nothings were rather distracting.” She then had the gall to chuckle . When would the torture 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. So, this was somewhat expected. 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. “I had a. Uhm. I had only an hour, and I swore to you I’d be done without any inexcusable delays, and in a week I’m leaving for the arctic north, and umh.” Azem finished deflating, slamming their head on the table. “I’ll clean up this …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 inappropriate image of Emet-Selch from the recorded tale. She channeled aether to 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 die 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 his way of– his. 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 forlorn 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. The journey will be arduous and long. 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?”

“Hmm?” 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 yet. 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.

After the lessons, 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 replied. “The sun has just set, esteemed Azem.”

Oh.

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 a little complicated. 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.

“Stop.” 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 finally entered Azem’s field of consciousness. 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 accosted 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 reached the concert hall, and waited by the double-doors 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 all the way up there.

Only 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 grew. 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 uh… innovative?” Azem ventured carefully while clapping, gauging Hades’ opinion.

“Innovative? Maybe, but unusual? Most definitely,” said Hades. “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 the 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.” said Azem, clapping along with the audience dutifully.

“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 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. Why had he not pushed Azem away now? Had Hades shown compassion despite disliking being touched? It felt horrible to have put Hades in an uncomfortable spot, but it was difficult to bring up.

The concert was over, and the audience now 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 so sorry about, um, just now. I must have been tired.”

“Mm, does your mortality shock you?” Hades asked. He gazed down at the concert-goers down below, observing their mingle. Tranquil laughter traveled through the hall. He continued, more quietly: “Your mortality… 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.”

“How dense are you– well, whatever. I will not repeat myself. Your unusual occupation being the way it is, unvoiced thoughts are better off being released. So," Hades looked decidedly away. "I have more or less forgiven you for missing my oath of office. I’m sure the reason for your lateness is quite the tale as well? Regale me with the details of it some day.”

The rapid fire revelations made Azem’s head spin, and they were glad to be sitting down. 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. Something to talk about, quick! "The day of your oath, I was flying home when a little creature 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 miles 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?”

“Huh? 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!”

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

“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. But Hades’ tone had been hostile, and the wave of his hands snappy. The silence stretched, distorting the space between them into an acidic swamp, where the more you struggled the more you sunk.

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 with fury as he snapped to look at Azem. His fist shook with rage, but when he spoke the words were ice. 

“What am I to you?” he asked with eerie calm, 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 this go.

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,” Azem urged. 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.