The light at the end of the tunnel was blinding, and Acylius threw up an arm to protect his sight. Caught in mid-step, he stumbled and nearly tripped over his own feet as he tried to find the wall. A painful shock to the heel of his hand told him that he'd found it, and he winced as he tried to rebalance himself. He didn't dare open his eyes just yet.
It had been a relief to let his eyes unfocus in the dark passage, to feel his way through it and give his eyes a chance to rest. The ache had been almost entirely gone by the time he had reached the end of the passage, and he had been completely unprepared for the pain that lanced through his head when he looked out at the kaleidoscope of bright kolors that was Flower City. Even the blurry afterimage imprinted on the inside of his eyelids was almost too much to bear. He fumbled forward a few steps and made it to the entrance with his eyes still shielded. How much time would it take for him to adjust? Should he retreat back into the tunnel?
Cautiously, Acylius lowered his arm and opened his eyes the merest fraction. "Oh, Aelia," he said, squinting at her. "It's good to see you...as far as it goes."
She giggled a little, which warmed his heart and made the pain in his head recede a little.
"I wasn't expecting you to come back so soon. Why are you covering your eyes? Is something wrong?"
"Nothing terribly serious," he said, trying to open his eyes all the way. The attempt made him stagger. He fell painfully against one of the pillars supporting the entrance.
"Acylius!" There was the sound of fluttering wings, and the brush of warm air against his carapace, and then Aelia's hands on his arm. "Come on, just follow me. Tell me about it on the way."
She coaxed him into the air, despite his reservations about flying blind. Moving through the sky without sight made him feel queasy.
"Are you hurt?" asked Aelia, her hands cool on his. She must have been flying backwards, a feat of considerable skill.
"No, it's just...I've strained my eyes, I think."
"Doing what?" There was an edge in her voice that made Acylius want to cringe. He knew that edge. It had never been directed at him before, but he had heard it turned on Fulgor more than once. He seemed immune to it, but Acylius definitely was not.
"Writing," he said.
"Writing what? Careful, we're touching down at the Great Flower." Acylius obediently pointed his feet downwards and felt the cool floor under the tips. He let himself drop fully to the ground, and tried opening his eyes again. Now that he was faced with only the cool white of the Great Flower's insides, the pain wasn't as great—though it was still there, throbbing persistently behind his eyes. Aelia kept one of her hands in his and half-led, half-dragged him to her laboratory. "Writing what?" she asked again. The edge was still in her voice.
"Things," he said. "It's important, Aelia," he added hastily. "But since there's little light in the Dark City—well, obviously, it has to live up to its name—it's more difficult than I had originally anticipated."
"Can't you find a proper light for yourself?" asked Aelia, sounding a little exasperated. Acylius sighed.
"I tried, at first," he said, glumly. "But it isn't as simple as you might think. Almost the only lights in the whole city are the torches, and they aren't designed to be removed from the brackets." He wrung his hands a little at the memory of the pain. "Then I tried...borrowing...one of Teknocratus's light-making devices. That was perfect, but it made the guards break into my room."
"Break into your room?" repeated Aelia, astonished.
"Yuks believe that light is bad for you," said Acylius. "They thought they were being helpful." He had repeated that to himself like a mantra.
"I'm beginning to see the problem," said Aelia, moving over to her workbench. "Stay there. Keep your eyes closed."
Gratefully, Acylius did as he was told. "I'm sorry to trouble you with my problems, Aelia."
"Don't be silly," she said. Acylius could hear her moving around, and there was an occasional drip-drip as she added some mixture or other to...whatever it was that she was making. "I'm just amazed that the Yuks are so stubborn about light. How on earth do they manage?"
"I'm honestly not sure," Acylius told her. "I suppose that they've simply adjusted to it over time. It helps that most of them don't do anything that requires proper illumination, I suppose."
"Yes, that would help," said Aelia thoughtfully. "But you can't write there anymore. Not when it's going to hurt you like this."
She continued as though he hadn't spoken. "If you need to write, you can do it here."
Acylius stopped short in the middle of his protest. After a moment, he said, "I don't know why I didn't think of that."
Aelia snorted. "Because you were so set on what you were doing that you didn't take the time to think?" she suggested. The words might have stung, if her voice hadn't been so full of exasperated affection.
"Probably," admitted Acylius.
"Definitely," corrected Aelia. Acylius heard her footsteps approaching with some nervousness. When something cold brushed his eyelids, he flinched backwards automatically.
"Sorry," said Aelia. "This will be cold. Hold still a moment."
Bracing himself, Acylius obeyed. Very gently, Aelia brushed something against his eyelids. Almost immediately, the cold sank deep into his skin - not enough to cause numbness, but enough to soothe the ache in his head.
"Oh," he said with relief. "That feels much better!"
"Good," said Aelia, with amused satisfaction. "It's supposed to. You can open your eyes again now."
Cautiously, Acylius did so. Aelia's laboratory, as always, was crowded with bright containers and floral experiments - but the expected stab of pain didn't come. His head still ached a little, but Aelia's medicine had made an enormous difference. Overcome with wonder and gratitude, Acylius seized her free hand and kissed it.
"Aelia, you're marvelous!"
Her cheeks flushed, and she dipped her head. "Well, I wouldn't be able to stand it if you were in pain and I could do something about it," she said, sounding flustered but pleased. "Does your head still hurt at all?"
"A little," admitted Acylius, reluctantly letting go of her hand. "I'm afraid that it's been practically constant, lately."
Aelia frowned, and reached up to brush his forehead with one hand. "That's not good. If I gave you something to help, would you be able to take it back with you?"
"If I leave it in the tunnels," said Acylius, leaning into her touch as subtly as he could.
"I'll do that, then." Her hand slid gently down the side of his face. "And you won't try to write anymore while you're at the Stump? That's probably what's causing the worst of it."
"I'll try not to," he assured her. "Perhaps I could sit and write here while you work on your experiments?"
She brightened. "That would be wonderful," she said. "And maybe I can show you some of the things I've been working on...?"
He took her hands and kissed them again. "I'd like nothing better."