"I absolutely love your dress," Alair said, her green-blue eyes appreciatively roaming over the Queen of Landen.
"I'm glad you like it. Although I must warn you it's not quite as it appears," Laya replied with a smile.
"You mean it's not a finely-cut dress of extremely fine, apparently very expensive red fabric, cut to enhance your figure for maximum advantage?"
"Well, it's that too," Laya replied as she pointed to an easily missed curl of white ribbon around her waist seam. "I pull this, the skirt falls off in a heartbeat, and I'm wearing a bodice similar to Mieu's. Perfect in case I need to fight and can't spare the time to change."
Her friend stared at her. "Why would you possibly need something like that?"
Alair nodded before she tossed her mane of lime green hair over her shoulder. "Yes, I can see why you might prefer to have that option available after that particular fiasco."
"Besides, it gives her something cute to wear for Nial," Mieu added.
"Mieu!" Laya exclaimed in mock-horror. "My bodice is not cute."
Alair dissolved into giggles. Laya kept her scandalized expression for another heartbeat before she joined her friend in laughter. She had given her husband a friendly pat on his rear before she had told him to run along and play while she and Alair had girl talk. Nial had boomed with laughter at her jest before he gave her a light kiss.
"Ryan and I are headed for man talk," he had said, eyes mirthful. "We'll go confer out of your way while you chat."
Nial had left her Mieu, sending Wren to keep an eye on the children. Arm in arm with Alair, Laya set off, intent on catching up while giving her friend a tour of the castle. The colorful tapestries on the walls and the woven rugs on the black marble floor made the place livable, even if it failed to hide that the castle had been designed for war. Precious metal glittered everywhere, plates, platters, cups, and other trinkets of kingship, even as precious stones did their part to beautify the interior.
Laya had had the gaudier trinkets put away after she had become mistress of the household, but here and there gemstone eyes shone out of the sockets of statues or glittered from chests made of precious woods. She dutifully ignored the slits where needlers could rain fire down on invading enemies, and the half-dozen other subtle defenses designed into the fortress. Laya stopped them in front of a small marble statue no more than a foot tall. "Do you recognize who this is?"
Alair stopped and stared. "What is your sister doing here? Did you have this made?"
Laya snorted. "I'm not an artist. I would never be able to get my sister's face across to a carver. No, I found this in storage. I think it's one of Orakio's prizes from the war."
"Prizes? You mean he snatched this out of one of our strongholds during the Devastation War?"
"I doubt he did it himself, but it seemed he liked it enough to keep it. I find it amusing that my sister has been within Orakio's stronghold for over a millennium and no one realized it."
"But...why would he keep it?" Alair asked, puzzled. "Orakio hated Laya!"
The younger woman shrugged. "They worked well together for years before they went to war against each other. But I couldn't tell you why he kept it. Maybe Lune could say."
Lune's sister gazed upon her ancient leader's face as she thought about it. "Perhaps he could. I doubt anyone else alive today could. Orakio was Lune's hero before the war started, in a way Lutz could never be."
"Alair," Laya said flatly.
"What? Oh," Alair said sheepishly, glancing behind them. "Mieu, do you know why Orakio would keep a statue of Laya?"
The red-headed android tilted her head as she looked at the statue. "I cannot say with certainty. My master was a complex man." Her blue eyes shifted from the statue to Alair and Laya. "May I ask a question?"
"Of course, Mieu," Laya replied.
"How is it that you share a name with your sister, Laya? It's not standard Palman nomenclature for siblings to share the same name."
Laya did not answer. A brief silence hung in the air before Alair replied in her stead. "Call it a legacy of their mother."
Silence reigned for a heartbeat before Mieu said, "Do tell me how Lune is, and all about his lovely little daughter."
It no longer startled Laya how intuitive and empathic the red-headed android could be. Not for the first time, she sent a silent prayer to wherever Orakio's spirit wandered, thanking him for the invaluable gift of Mieu. She was a loyal friend and confidant, a treasure beyond price in an era of petty power plays and backstabbings.
Alair rolled her eyes and smiled. "My brother is about how you would expect him to be. He's master of Dahlia, and the Layan half of Elysium has sworn allegiance to him, but he's rejected the title of king. He insists he doesn't need a title as ostentatious as that. 'I am Lune, general of Laya. That's more than enough.' Ha! He sounds so modest, doesn't he?"
Mieu grinned. "He certainly does! Did it work?"
"Somewhat," Alair replied with a grin. "The call him Lord Lune to his face and otherwise treat him like a cross between a god and a king."
Laya giggled. "It sounds like Lune is suffering what my sister had to endure."
The lime-green hair was tossed over her shoulder as Alair considered this. "It does, doesn't it?"
"My master suffered similar circumstances," Mieu observed. "He hated it so much that he avoided the towns whenever he could, spending most of his time in the field."
"What about Lune's daughter, Alair?" Laya prompted. She didn't want to get involved in a discussion about Orakio and Laya.
"Kara's a very sweet girl," Alair said before she sighed. "She's a princess, like her mother. She doesn't seem to have inherited Lune's warrior spirit."
"She seems to be a lovely child," Laya observed.
"Oh, she is. Quite the little lady, loves a good story. Pity Lune wanted a warrior to inherit his legacy, not a scholar."
"So she takes after her mother?" Mieu asked as Laya took Alair's arm and resumed walking.
"Yes, for a certainty. At least she inherited her father's constitution, so she's not frail and sickly. But tell me of your children! How is it for them, growing up here?"
Laya flinched. How was it for her children growing up in the land of Sa Riik as the children of Laya, sister of the goddess that haunted the Orakians?
"Well, it is their home," she said somewhat evasively.
Alair gazed at her sharply. "I cared for you as a sister when you were a child. When did that ever work on me?" Alair dropped her voice to a whisper, but her tone still held mild rebuke. "Sahana."
How many years had it been since she'd heard her birth name and not the title she'd inherited? Her sister had been eighteen when she'd been born, the year Palma died. Her sister had raised her, through the years of her meteoric rise to power and the Devastation War. Her sister had been her mother, providing safety and love, protecting her with a ferocity that would have made dragons quail.
But then, fifteen years after her birth, Laya had sealed her in the cryogenic chamber. Laya and Orakio had sealed her. She had not understood why. She still did not understand why, but it was frustrating to have to pick up their pieces. Especially now that those pieces were her children.
"It is... difficult. One thousand years of hatred are not easily overcome. There have been... problems."
Her friend's eyes glittered dangerously as her free hand caressed the slicer at her belt. "Do these problems have names?"
She sighed. "The most prominent for Nial and I is named Lynx Le Gaede. For my children, particularly my daughter, it would be his son Greck."
Alair glared at a passing servant. The man flinched. "I suppose there is a sizable group that dislike having Laya's little sister as their queen, and their future ruler related to Laya by blood."
"That would be putting it mildly. Lynx is a very powerful noble, and all of the Orakians opposed to me and mine have gathered around him. We can't touch him, but if we could, his faction would be shattered. Nial has hinted at a marriage alliance, my Adan with his daughter Lam or my Gwyn to his Greck, but I am opposed."
"No need to offer pearls to swine," Alair said hotly.
"Especially not a swine like Greck," Laya said, making no effort to disguise her loathing. "Lam is a good child, so far untainted by her father, but Greck is a monster. He torments my little girl at every opportunity and makes my children's lives far more difficult. Like his father, he leads the more...prejudiced...amongst the children."
Alair glanced behind them at Mieu. "It does not sound like the children are having the best of times."
"It's a little rough, but it's not so bad," Mieu said optimistically. "The children are good-natured and very strong. Laya's done a very good job balancing their confusion at their dual heritage so they're proud of both sides of their legacies."
"Is that why you gave Adan the tikal?" Alair asked curiously. "Balance?"
"My son... is like my sister," Laya said slowly. "A very proud boy. Like his aunt, he lives by his pride. If his pride is encouraged, he will fight valiantly for everything his pride encompasses. His honor, his family, his sense of self, his nation, his heritage, his world. The tikal encourages his pride in Laya and prevents anyone from denying who he is."
Alair looked thoughtful as they walked past a painting of King Rhys, Nial's father. "What of Gwyn?"
"My poor girl. She's such a sweet child but..."
Mieu answered sadly. "She's a charming child who wants to be friends with everyone. She thinks it's wonderful to be related to both Orakio and Laya, since it means there's no barrier to the two people being at peace. It hurts her very much when the children reject her for being Laya's niece. It also upsets her when her brother is injured defending her."
"It hasn't happened so far, but I dread that my children one day renounce their relation to Laya and pretend to be wholly Orakian," Laya said worriedly. "If that were to happen..."
"Perhaps I should take the children with me when I return to Dahlia?" Alair suggested. "They'll spend all their lives with their Orakian subjects, but it may do them good to live amongst Layans as well."
Laya considered the idea. "I'll talk to Nial about it, but I'm not sure he'll like it. He loves our children very much, and I think being separated from his children by an entire world will be difficult for him as well as me." She smiled. "Thinking of the children, why don't we check on them? They should be playing in Shilka's garden and we're close."
The three of them traveled down the hallway chatting amiably. The corridor opened onto one of the inner walls of the keep that overlooked Shilka's garden, a large enclosure with flagstone paths that meandered through expanses of trees and blossoms. There were flowers of every color, with roses, chrysanthemums, lotuses and more kinds of florets than Laya had names.
But she had no time to take in the colors of the garden or the heady perfume of the flowers. She heard the distinctive high-pitched whine of needler fire coming from within the garden. Mieu took off running, jumped once onto the wall, then leaped down. Laya rushed to the parapet and, horrified, took in the scene thirty feet below her.
Eight humanoid shapes quickly resolved themselves into four guards in Orakian armor and four gray robots with golden heads and joints. Laya didn't need to see them to know they were Robomen, the most advanced war machines in Landen's arsenal. The automatons each had a heat rod in their left hands, a ceramic weapon that could be used as a baton for crowd control, or superheated to melt through flesh and bone. All eight were armed with needlers, vicious weapons that spat out high-velocity flechettes that could tear through weaker armors like paper. They were firing on a crouched figure surrounded by a pale blue energy barrier that flickered with each impact.
Mieu had reached the enemy, and was dueling one of the Robomen. The traitorous Orakians had distanced themselves from the deadly redhead gynoid, even as the other three robots continued to fire upon the crouching figure. Laya recognized the ebon armor as Wren's, and her heart skipped a beat when she caught the hint of long golden hair hidden beneath the powerful war machine's frame.
Faster than thought, she pulled the white ribbon at her waist. Her skirt fell to her ankles as she moved to the opposite side, away from the parapet. Her long legs built up her momentum as she raced toward the low barrier. Laya rose up onto the parapet and leaped toward the nearest tree.
Her body sailed through the air as her momentum closed the distance between inner wall and tree. Her feet landed on her target branch, but she wasted no time recovering her balance as she used the tree's recoil to leap toward the next tree, aiming for a lower branch. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the Roboman drive Mieu back as the redhead performed the dance of combat. Laya landed on the lower branch, turned her body to aim for yet another low branch. As she spun, Laya moved her right hand, bringing it down to her chest level before she pulled it back toward her shoulder and cut through the air.
Moving at half the speed of light, powerful orbs of electricity formed over the Robomen attacking Wren. The orbs discharged high voltage energy straight down at their offending targets, overloading the machines and destroying them in a loud shower of thunder and sparks as their circuits fried and pistons melted. The three Robomen fell, husks of fused gears, scorched metal and fused plastics.
Another leap brought Laya down to ground level, the impact reduced by the bed of white flowers she landed on. Her eyes were focused on the traitors, her hand already extended to launch the next spell. Three of them stared, dumbfounded, at the wrecks of their robotic assassins. The sharpest one in the group had already begun searching for her. Their eyes met as she stood. He began to raise his needler, his intent clear. Her fingertips glowed as heat gathered at the edge of her hand. "Flaeli!"
A sphere of flame formed at the tip of her hand before it broke into four shafts of fire that crossed the distance between her and her target within the blink of an eye before they converged. The smell of burned human flesh filled the air as the traitor stared in disbelief at the cauterized stump where his right hand used to be. He began to scream.
The shrieks broke his comrades' stupor as they quickly took in the sounds of his screams, the smell of burned flesh, and the sight of their associate's charred stump as Laya approached them wearing nothing more than her bodice. The traitors quickly began to bring their needlers up, aiming straight for her. Her right hand slashed across the air in front of her as she snarled out another spell. "Hewn!"
An invisible spiral formed in front of each uninjured traitor. The turbulent force spun faster and faster as a vortex of wind formed and drilled into the three men's chestplates. The powerful gyre of wind took a heartbeat to shatter the Orakian armor, roughly hurling the betrayers into the air before they could fire off a round. They crashed down onto the ground with heavy thuds.
The crippled traitor had recovered enough presence of mind to draw his knife, the long cleaver-like tool that was a mainstay of Orakian melee combat. Before he could charge her, Laya's ears detected a familiar whir. The man howled as a slicer cut deep into his arm. His weapon fell from his suddenly nerveless fingers. Laya gathered her power before she brought up both her hands. She brought her middle fingers and thumbs against each other before she snapped them. "Bindwa! Secunda!"
Invisible bindings fastened around the crippled traitor and one of his stunned compatriots. She repeated the double casting to magically chain the remaining two. They would not be able to free themselves, as they lacked the powers to break through. Her eyes quickly surveyed her surroundings. Mieu had defeated her opponent and was approaching her, the Roboman's head in her hand. The gynoid's blue eyes surveyed their surroundings warily. Alair was still on the parapet, but her hands held slicers, ready to launch again in case any other enemies revealed themselves.
Laya ran toward Wren, her long legs closing the distance between them quickly. The war machine disengaged his barrier and stood, revealing Adan, Gwyn and Kara. The three children were staring at her in awe. Laya fell to her knees in front of them and gathered them within her arms. She murmured soothing sounds as her mind was overwhelmed with the relief that they were alive. She didn't bother to hold back the tears that slowly leaked from her eyes.
"Mama," Gwyn murmured in wonder. "Are you a goddess too?"
"No, my darling," Laya finally said, her voice thick with raw emotion. "I'm your mother."