The trills of wild Chirpers sounded in the distance as the wind gently caressed the weary travelers. Kara flinched from the soft touch of air before her smile grew bigger than before. She had spent all her life within the confines of the spaceship Dahlia, one of the two "moons" of the generation ship Alisa III. Every aspect of life on Dahlia was almost entirely self-sustaining, providing energy, food, air, and water for everyone on board, even as the factories processed goods and the Bio-plant bred monsters. The only view was of the void and the seven domes of the "world."
But now she was on the world! She was seeing a blue sky for the first time, feeling the wind and the warmth of the sunlight for the first time, smelling grass and flowers and so many other things for the first time! Compared to Dahlia, Alisa III was a wonderland, a place of minor miracles where all the words she had learned finally had meaning.
"Be mindful, little princess. We are still Layans in Orakian lands," a stern voice warned her.
She turned her eyes to the battle-scarred knight and smiled at the gruff affection in his voice. "Yes, I'll be mindful! Thank you, Sirjee Ryan!"
The stern knight nodded. Only the tiniest upturn at the corner of his mouth let Kara know he smiled too. Black-haired Ryan Ka Shiumu was Aunt Alair's knight of honor, her bodyguard, protector, and companion. He was one of the strongest Layans on all of Alisa III, even though he only had one eye. All the soldiers respected him because of his strength. Only Lune, the great Layan hero of legend, was stronger than Sirjee Ryan.
Lune was her father. She was terrified of him.
It wasn't that her father hit her. He had never touched her in any way that was not brusquely affectionate. It wasn't that he yelled at her. Discipline was the purlieu of Aunt Alair and Mother on the few occasions she felt well. It wasn't his powerful magic or great prowess as a warrior or his massive physical size.
What scared Kara was the legend.
It wasn't that Kara disliked stories. She loved stories and would pester Aunt Alair and beg her mother for fairy tales and myths. Kara was fascinated by the differences between her mother's stories and her aunt's. She would often daydream of the day her prince, tall and handsome and strong, would come to sweep her off her feet, would protect her and cherish her and give her story a happily ever after. Then she would remember who her father was.
For over a thousand years, her father had been a demigod Layans had prayed to even as he haunted Orakian nightmares. Layan knights invoked his name in their oaths even as Orakian knights swore to keep Lune at bay. It only became scarier when her father talked about dueling the swordmaster Orakio to a draw or fighting the android general Siren to stalemate.
Whenever he spoke about the Devastation War, Kara noticed Lune talked about Orakio in a different way than he talked about Siren or Orakians in general. The contempt in his voice vanished, replaced with an almost unwilling respect. It wasn't like he was talking about a friend, but more about an old familiar rival. She sometimes thought her father missed Orakio.
Anyone who was so strong that they missed fighting a god would send princes running away just by looking at them funny.
Kara put her fear away and closed her eyes, basking in the sunlight. Aunt Alair had insisted that Kara be allowed to come to Alisa III with her. Lune had not wanted to let his only child on the ship, arguing it was too dangerous. Sirjee Ryan, siding with Aunt Alair, had stood up to Lune, something that always caused a huge fight. Before it got ugly, Mother had intervened, insisting Kara be allowed on the ship.
Outnumbered and outgunned, her father had given in, warning Sirjee Ryan that if anything happened to his daughter that not even Laya and Orakio together could preserve the one-eyed knight's life. Sirjee Ryan had replied that he wouldn't bother such august personages with a trifling matter he could handle on his own.
She picked up her skirt and ran, latching onto the tough knight's arm. "Sirjee Ryan, would you really fight my father if something happened to me?"
Try though she might, she could never see the mustachioed man's eye through his dark sunglasses. The scar on the left side of his face shifted a little as his eyebrow rose. "Of course I would. It's not like it would be the first time."
Her eyes widened. "You've fought my father?"
"Ryan," Aunt Alair said, her voice warning.
"Long before you were born, little princess," he said, deliberately ignoring his lady. "However, that's a story for another time."
The knight scooped her up, putting her on his shoulder before he pointed ahead. "Our destination: Landen, city of Sa Riik. Orakio's home, long ago."
Kara stared ahead, eyes wide as another word became real for her. Landen! The only Orakian land that had kept her father at bay through bravery and force of arms. It was the home of the descendant of Orakio, King Nial Sa Riik, and his wife, the great Laya, sister of the goddess. The city walls were large and sturdy, their battlements decorated with the banner of Orakio, the golden sunburst on a black field.
She was put on her own feet a little bit short of the massive gatehouse. A few commands from Sirjee Ryan straightened their party out, as Layan soldiers in red clothing and silver armor formed up into a suitable honor guard around them before they entered the city.
Her eyes feasted on her surroundings. On Dahlia, everyone lived behind pneumatic metal doors, so you had to memorize where everyone lived. Landen was completely different. She saw many red-shingled stone houses of different shapes and sizes along the cobblestone road they walked. You could easily tell where anyone lived!
What astonished her the most were the people. There were so many of them! They all tended to be a bit bigger than her mother's people, and wore all sorts of clothing as they walked the road or haggled in shops or wooden stalls. Tunics, vests, dresses of all sorts of colors and cuts appeared, but Kara noticed that no one wore red.
Before she could wonder about it, a hand touched her shoulder. Aunt Alair tossed her thick mane of lime-green hair over her shoulder before she pointed her chin at a statue as she said, a bit of strain in her voice, "That's Orakio. It's been over a thousand years, but I'd know him anywhere."
Kara stared at the statue in the middle of a fountain. The man it depicted was smaller than her huge father, a little bit taller than average. Beneath his bangs, he wore a ribbon that ended in a knot, the two strips draped over his shoulders. He wore a peculiar breastplate that only protected his heart, the sunburst on prominent display. A gorget and shoulder plates protected his upper body, while gauntlets and greaves were the only other bits of protection he wore. In his right hand, he carried a single-edged sword, painted black. Before she could take a good look at his face, she had been bustled along into the castle.
Orakian soldiers lined their path through the courtyard. They stood stiffly, their armor similar to the images she had seen of robots in Dahlia's archives. Warrens, Kara remembered, one of Orakio's deadliest robots. Two massive banners hung from the battlements. One was Orakio's sunburst, but Kara was shocked to see Laya's red sign on the familiar field of white. She did not have much time to gawk before their party had walked into the keep.
They were in the throne room before long. Orakian soldiers in their gray armor and black clothes guarded the doors. Orakian noblemen with their long black cloaks and golden spaulders stood with the noblewomen in their fancy dresses and golden tiaras. The throne stood at the end of the chamber on an elevated dais, but it was empty. At the base of the dais stood the rulers of Landen.
Sirjee Ryan strode forward before Kara could take a good look at the royal family. "Alair Kay Eshyr of Dahlia greets King Nial Sa Riik and Queen Laya of Landen."
Kara stared. King Nial was a large man, as big as Sirjee Ryan, with soft brown hair and brown eyes that were calm and relaxed, yet danced with mirth. His strong, masculine face was handsome and projected the same calm his eyes held. He wore black robes suitable for a king, with an impressive heavy crown on his head. He wore no sword at his hip, but Kara could easily see the warrior aura, so similar to Sirjee Ryan's and Lune's. Lune was the strongest Layan warrior alive, and Kara had no doubt that King Nial was the strongest Orakian warrior alive. No other Orakian could possibly have her father's respect.
The little princess quickly forgot that train of thought when she looked at King Nial's wife. Queen Laya was a statuesque woman with long, golden hair that reached to her knees. Her face had fine and delicate features. She wore the tikal, the blood-red ruby that only the Laya could wear. Her beautiful dress was red and white, but her otherworldly indigo eyes drank Kara's soul, leaving her unable to look away.
"We welcome Alair of Dahlia to Landen. It has been far too long since we have shared her company. We also bid welcome to the Dragon Knight Ryan, noble companion from our youth."
"Oh, that's enough formality!" Aunt Alair exclaimed, striding up to Queen Laya and embracing her. The Orakians gasped. Kara looked around, a little nervous at their reaction.
She needn't have worried. King Nial merely smiled and walked over to Sirjee Ryan. The undamaged side of the one-eyed knight's face pulled into a half-smile as the large king enveloped the Layan warrior in a bear hug. Aunt Alair gave King Nial a hug, then Sirjee Ryan and the Layan soldiers knelt before the Queen to receive her blessing. The Orakian nobles settled down in short order.
Aunt Alair took her hand and tugged her forward. "Meet the daughter and heir of Lune. Go on, love, introduce yourself."
She nervously fumbled with her skirts, desperately trying to remember what Mother had taught her about courtly manners. "I-I'm P-princess Kara Kay Eshyr of Dahlia. Um, I'm h-honored to meet you, King Nial Sa Riik and Queen Laya."
King Nial and Queen Laya both smiled at her. Before they could respond, Aunt Alair said, "And who are these handsome children?"
Kara looked up from her curtsy and saw two children her own age. Queen Laya's eyes had caught her before she had noticed them. A boy and a girl with golden hair and the Queen's otherwordly eyes. The boy was dressed in black from head to toe, relieved only by a white cape. The girl wore a red dress, just like her mother, offset with black. They both bore the tikal.
"I am Prince Adan Sa Riik of Landen, Satera, and Mystoke," the boy announced proudly.
"I am Princess Gwyn Sa Riik of Landen, Satera, and Mystoke," the girl said with a curtsy and a smile.
King Nial smiled at his children with pride before he looked around. "This ceremony is ended. Our lords and ladies, go about your affairs. We shall be hosting a reception for our visitors this night, and we would be pleased at your attendance. Orakio favor you."
The Orakian nobles didn't seem happy about being dismissed, but they obeyed. King Nial smiled down at her. "Adan, Gwyn, why don't you go play in the gardens with Princess Kara? Us old folk will be deep in discussion until the reception, and I don't see why you should be bored with listening to our stale stories."
Before Kara could protest, Gwyn had already grabbed her. "Thank you, Papa!"
The little blonde princess ran off before Kara could reply, firmly in possession of the moon princess's hand. Kara had just enough time to glimpse Queen Laya taking Aunt Alair by the hand before she was out of the throne room.
Kara lost track of all the twists and turns they took before they were outside again. She gasped in pleasure when she saw the beautiful garden they were in. So many different kinds of flowers of so many different colors! She felt dizzy from all the perfumes she inhaled even as the colors stunned her eyes.
"It's beautiful," was all Kara could think to say.
"Of course! This is Shilka's Garden. It's the most beautiful garden in all of Landen. Mama says that Orakio's wife planted it. It's my favorite place in the whole kingdom."
"Too bad there's a half-breed witch and a full one ruining it," a boy's voice said nastily.
Kara turned and recoiled. Three big boys wearing the black cloaks of Orakian noblemen were staring at them with nasty looks on their faces. They looked very mean, like they wanted to hurt her, but she couldn't think of a single reason why they would want to hurt her.
"What's the matter, half-breed? Wanna grow up to be a full witch? Is that why you brought another witch with you?"
"Greck! Stop it!" Gwyn cried, tears gathering in her eyes.
Witches were women who used magic for bad things. Kara had never used techniques for anything beyond healing, so calling her a witch was unfair. "I'm not a witch," Kara protested. "I'm a princess!"
Greck sneered, his lumpy face uglier because of some nasty bruises he had. "A princess, huh? I don't believe you. You're a witch, just like the half-breed!"
Gwyn had started crying. Kara wanted to cry too, but resisted. "I am too a princess!"
"Oh yeah?" Greck gave a nasty smile. From somewhere, she wasn't sure where, he pulled a knife."I'm sure there are ways we can find out. We can cut open your dress and check if you and the half-breed are princesses. If we can't prove it after we open your dress...well, we'll just have to keep cutting."
Kara started crying as Greck and his friends began to approach. She was a princess, daughter of Lune himself! But they were bigger than her, stronger, and they were going to hurt her and she didn't understand why. She prayed to Laya that her prince would come to save her. But why would her prince live in an Orakian town? Kara knew it was a hopeless prayer, but it was all she could do.
Before their tormentors could take more than two steps toward her and Gwyn, a white blur hit Greck in the face. The bully fell, hard. His friends stopped, gaped at the small boy who confronted them. Kara could only stare as the wind rustled a white cape that bore Orakio's sunburst.
"I will protect you," Adan said, his golden head held high, unafraid.
Her prince had found her.