A/N: As the first "new" story in this sequence, I'm forced, of course, to post it out of order. It actually would come first in the sequence, chronologically.
~X X X~
"The truth of the matter is, Lune's forces haven't budged since Azura was destroyed. They've been up to something else entirely."
Queen Sari of Landen did not mince words. Others, the courtiers of Landen and even the android Mieu, had danced around the topic with Sean. After all, the green-haired prince was the last known human survivor of the Satellite. The transplanted kingdoms of Cille and Shusoran were gone, their people murdered, their legacy destroyed, and Sean Sa Riik was all that was left. They treaded lightly, for fear of hurting him further.
Idiots, Sean thought. He'd lost his parents. He'd lost his friends. He'd lost his home. He'd lost his people. He'd lost his very reason for being—eighteen years of training to be a prince ripped apart in an instant. And they wanted to avoid hurting his feelings?
No, give him Sari's directness any day.
From what his parents had told him, Sari had been blunt even in her youth, but there was good reason for her to be so now. Landen had been at war with the Layan forces of Lune for longer than Sean had been alive. Instead of a fancy silk dress like Sean's mother might have worn, Sari's formal garb was a divided skirt, slit up both sides to the waist for near-complete freedom of movement, worn over utilitarian leggings and boots, with a bodice worn under a silver-bright laconia chestplate. She openly wore knives on both hips, and Sean suspected that she had a couple more secreted somewhere about her person. And this was what she wore to greet a state visitor! The queen had long ago been swallowed up by the role of general. She didn't have time to be diplomatic.
From what Sean had heard in the city, Sari did most of her commanding from the front lines, in the teeth of the enemy. They spoke of her like a warrior saint, as if she alone was winning the war for Landen. They said Lune Kai Eshyr, once the general who'd stood at the right hand of Laya herself, a demon out of legend to the Landen-folk, did not take the battlefield himself because he was scared to fight Sari one-on-one.
The stories might even be true. Certainly, he understood why his parents had encouraged him to seek Sari's aid before ordering Wren and Mieu to drag him on board the escape shuttle.
"The world's gone mad," she continued. "If you've come here from Aridia, you've seen it yourself. Packs of monsters like Lune's, and cyborgs like the ones of Siren's army, and even worse besides, all wandering freely and attacking Orakians and Layans indiscriminately."
Sean folded his arms across his chest. His gaze flicked around the room. It was Landen Castle's conference hall, he judged, given its long, polished table and the banners of the kingdom's noble houses and knightly orders hanging from the walls. There had once been a skylight, but it had been walled over so that the spot where it had been now looked like a scar running nearly the length of the ceiling. A scar of war.
"Are you listening to me?"
Sean's gaze snapped back to Sari.
"No, of course you're not," she said, a faint hint of contempt in her voice.
Rubbed raw to the point of bleeding as his emotions were, it was enough to set Sean off.
"You said you'd help me find Siren! This war with Lune is your problem, Landen's problem. I don't care if he's pulled back. I want to find Siren and make him pay for Azura, not listen to a lecture on something that doesn't matter!"
The sharp crack of Sari's palm on his cheek echoed in the high-ceilinged room. Howling with rage, he swung at her, but she caught his wrist in her left hand and shoved him almost effortlessly down into one of the velvet-cushioned chairs at the table.
"Sit, if you know what's good for you."
"I'm not—" he tried, but her gaze alone kept him pinned. There was fury in her eyes, but it was tightly, ruthlessly leashed, and all the more fearsome because of it. He shifted uneasily in his chair.
"That was pathetic," she said flatly. "Do you think you can get your revenge like that?"
"If you can't stay calm, then you're no good to anyone."
"Calm!" he exploded. "How can you expect me to be calm? You want me to just ignore what happened to Azura? To my people? To my parents? For Laya's sake, they were your friends, weren't they?"
"Do you think I don't care?"
Something, maybe a trickle of survival instinct from his hindbrain, made him change his response before he said it aloud.
"No, I don't think that."
"Good answer. But I know something else, which is that fear and temper won't get you anything."
She grabbed one of the chairs, pulled it out, and sat down.
"Look, I understand what you're going through, I really do. When Lune's armies first attacked, I lost everything. My homeland of Satera was destroyed, my family was killed, and those of us who survived fled to Landen where things were nearly as bad. Odds are, I'd have run off and gotten myself killed too if the people here hadn't grabbed me and shoved a crown on my head because I was the last person with more than three drops of royal blood in them, even if it was for the wrong kingdom."
Sean blinked in surprise.
"I...I didn't know—"
She shook her head.
"That's not the point. What happened to me doesn't change your problem. It just means that I see where you're coming from, that's all. I know what it's like to have fear and grief and temper all writhing around inside of you, until you do stupid things like insult the people trying to help you and take a weak, zero-skill punch at a friend. Which ought to be your best lesson."
"What lesson?" he said sullenly. "That you can kick my butt?"
"Half my chambermaids could kick your behind if you punch like that. Mieu tells me you're a good swordsman, probably better than your father, but you let all your training go and flailed at me like a schoolboy because you were too angry to think straight. Hell, just since I sat you down you've gone from rage to sympathy to bitterness. Your feelings are flying around all over the place. And it's going to get you killed."
"So I'm supposed to calm down? Put it all away for the good of my soul? Just give up my revenge like everyone on Azura didn't mean a damned thing?"
"Do I look like a priest? I don't think so."
"Did you ever try to build anything out of sand?"
"Did you ever try to build anything out of sand when you were a little kid? Like if you visited Draconia on vacation or something?"
"Y-yeah. One of the kids in Techna showed me how to build a sandcastle, once." He'd been about six, and his parents had gone there on a diplomatic trip, and he'd cried so much at the thought of being left alone that they'd taken him with them.
"How'd that work for you?"
"Not so good," he muttered. He'd never quite figured out how much water to mix in so it would cling together but not turn into a muddy mess.
"You can't make things out of sand," she added. "They don't hold their shape. They fall apart under the slightest pressure. At best they're pretty to look at for a little bit, but you can't do anything with them." She paused for a beat before finishing with what Sean was expecting by then. "Your feelings are sand."
"How do you figure?"
She had no trouble answering his retort.
"They're scattered. They're confused. You've got some blind rage at the one who did this, some grief for your losses, some confusion about what your life consists of now that you've got nothing to be prince of, some fear that the world's turned on you, some fear of being alone, some misdirected anger at Ayn and Thea for making you live while they died, and for sending Wren and Mieu with you instead of going themselves. How am I doing so far?"
He didn't answer. She didn't need him to.
"Like I said, sand. That's what your heart is right now, a bunch of different particles of emotion pressed up together. And it won't work. For us humans, resolve, determination, the will needed to accomplish anything comes from our feelings, whether love or hate, compassion or greed, whatever. Strong actions come from strong emotions. Weak emotions...you put them to the test and they fall apart."
"So, what? You're telling me I can't do anything?"
"Like you are now, no."
"But I can't just throw my feelings away! I'm not Wren; I can't just shut down my emotions!"
"And like I said before, I'm not asking you to. You can't build anything useful out of sand, sure, but if you throw away the sand, what have you got left?"
He was sure it wasn't the right answer, expecting some kind of pithy philosophical musing. Sean really should have known better.
"Right. And building something out of nothing is a hell of a lot harder than even using sand."
"So what do I do?"
Sari got up and walked over to the long sideboard set against one wall, where decanters of spirits were set for the refreshment of those using the hall. Sean thought she was getting herself a drink, but instead she just picked up a tumbler and walked back to the table. She set it down and slid it over to him.
"You see that?"
"It's a glass. So what?"
"Pick it up."
He did. "Hey, this feels different from the ones back home."
"Azura was an artificial world. Well, so's this, I guess, but the point is, your glasses aren't actually made of glass, but that clear stuff they use for floors. Here in Landen, we actually have glass. And do you know what they make glass from?"
It was a mark of how messed up his emotions were, Sean thought, that he hadn't actually seen that coming.
"Glassblowers apply heat, they melt it down, then they craft it into a variety of shapes. But the point is, it's still the same stuff. Only now, you can actually do something useful with it."
"So you're saying, don't throw away my feelings, but..."
"Right. Use them. Get them under control, and let them drive you. Do you want revenge for your parents, for Azura? Then go find it. But do it under control. Find what you really want and focus on it. Understand?"
He nodded back, a short, sharp gesture.
"I do." He paused. "I think," he added honestly. "That is, I see what you're saying, but to do it..."
"That's always the hard part, isn't it? Look, go take a break, have some dinner, and think for a while. Then after you've had a chance to sleep on it, we'll talk tomorrow. I've got a lot of information for you, and it's not all pointing in the same direction. If Siren did destroy Azura, he may not be working alone."
"I tried to tell you before, but you weren't listening. Tomorrow, we'll see if you're ready to hear."
He started to protest, to demand more information...but then shut his mouth. This was exactly the kind of thing she was talking about. He needed a head, a heart, as clear and firm as glass if he was going to be able to absorb this information and come up with a plan.
Sean rose from his seat.
"All right, Queen Sari. I'll talk to you tomorrow."
"Good. And forget the 'Queen'; you're as good as family."
"Thank you, Sari."
He left the conference room, leaving the Queen of Landen alone. She picked up the tumbler, strolled back to the sideboard, and picked up a decanter. Sari considered pouring a glass of the amber-hued liquor, then shrugged it off and set the bottle back down. The unused tumbler, too, went back into its place. Idly, she ran her fingertip around its base.
Her metaphor, she thought, was true another way. Glass was solid, yes, would hold a shape and be useful, but it was also brittle. It would shatter under a solid blow. And Sean Sa Riik of Azura...turning his sand to glass might get him moving again, give him some resolve, but unless he found something else along the way, she was afraid he would break. Revenge alone never made good building materials for a heart, and if Sean didn't add something else to his—the way she had found something more than revenge in the trust the people of Landen had put in her—she doubted he'd survive the crisis that seemed to be engulfing them all at ever-increasing speed.
You couldn't tell a person that, though. Sari knew as well as anyone that if someone had the problem, they weren't ready to hear the answer. She'd just have to wait and hope.
Changing her mind, Sari picked up the glass and decanter again and poured herself a drink. Raising the glass to the empty room, she said, "Here's to your memory, Ayn and Thea. I hope you're looking over your boy from wherever you are, because I've got a feeling the rest of us are going to be counting on him for an awful lot."
She knocked back the liquor in one gulp, feeling it burn her throat on the way down, and in the silence of the empty chamber the Queen of Landen allowed herself a tear for her fallen friends.