A summer breeze gently whispered past her ears as Lena walked. The sky wore the soft colors of dusk as the sun set. She paused long enough to shift her heavy bag of supplies to her other shoulder before she determinately trudged through the grasslands.
Daylight's heat slowly receded as night laid its black cloak across the sky. It was wonderful to be able to breathe the air rather than try to swim through the oppressive humidity. It was still hot, as the warm leather and the trickle of sweat between her breasts reminded her, but at least it was tolerable. Lena took off her hat and wiped her face with the back of her sleeve. The wretched heat gave her new appreciation for winter snow. It would have made finding Rhys considerably easier.
Matters had degenerated since she had rescued Rhys from the castle dungeon. King Saiki had taken grievously ill after his son's mysterious disappearance. Rumor had it that the old king was bedridden, barely able to speak or move on his own. Queen Tesni was for all intents and purposes the ruler of the Kingdom of Landen, and it showed. The old harridan sat her husband's throne, her two redheaded attendants whispering in her ears, as she dispensed justice and governed the realm. At least, she did those things if one took certain liberties with the words "justice" and "governed."
The Queen's family, the Le Gaedes, had received tenure to a number of rich royal properties at the expense of other Landenian nobles, fanning old grudges and resentments. Landen's court, always a nest of intrigue, was quickly becoming a maelstrom of venom as Queen Tesni arrogantly dismissed the other aristocratic families in favor of her own. Already, there were rumors of skirmishes between nobles at the edge of the kingdom. Everything balanced on the tip of a sword.
Important as the state of the realm was, it was really just an excuse. Lena sighed as she walked toward a rock outcropping that would provide her with a decent shelter for the night's camp. The truth of it was that ever since she had gone back home to Satera, she had been fretting over Rhys. The hotheaded man was hunting a dragon that had already tossed him aside as casually as a Moos handled an Eindon, and knowing him, he had probably charged out of the secret passage with the clothes on his back and the combat knife in hand with no one to look out for him. That blasted Sa Riik temper guaranteed it.
That gnawing worry had left her little choice. In the dead of night, she had quietly sneaked out of Satera with a hunter's bag of supplies suitable for a long-term venery, and begun the search for Rhys. She wouldn't be able to live with herself if he got himself killed after she had rescued him.
Lena sighed. Life would be so much easier if women could go off somewhere and bud when it came to continuing the species. Men made things so much more complicated.
Something cut through the air at high speed. Instinctively, Lena ducked. She looked up in time to see a green-scaled beast she would never forget disappear behind the opposite side of the rock outcropping.
It was the Layan dragon that had taken Maia away. Lena simply could not believe there was another such monster in Landen. Did that mean Maia was here? But why would she be out in the open like this? Surely the beast had had enough time to get to the eastern mountains and back again by now! What was going on?
But if Maia was on the other side of that outcropping...
She froze. If Maia was here, Lena had to save her. Ridiculous. Absurd! How could Orakio expect her to save her rival? It would have been alright if Rhys saved Maia with Lena's help, but to save the interloper by herself? They would be the laughingstock of every man, woman, and child in Landen and Satera. She'd shame herself for the next thousand years. The jilted bride saving the preferred one? No, no, a thousand times no!
Her jealousy whispered in her ears as she struggled with what to do. Why not leave Maia here? It wasn't her quest to save her, after all. Rhys was the one desperate to find the cerulean beauty and rescue her. Why should Maia have what Lena wanted? It was so simple. All she had to do was walk away and no one would ever know.
I would know.
An imprecation left Lena's mouth as she stalked toward the outcropping. Rival or not, laughingstock or not, she would never be able to forgive herself if she left an innocent amnesiac in the claws of the Layans. She would sooner publicly renounce Orakio and embrace the goddess of darkness!
The rock outcropping was more than large enough to conceal someone as short as she was. Lena quietly crept toward the end of the rough stone formation as she tried to quiet the soft, ragged gasps that had replaced her normal breathing. She gently set down her sack of supplies and firmly gripped the rock bend before she inched her head around the edge.
Long leather wings stretched out as the dragon lay curled around itself in casual repose. The monster's scales were dimmed shadow in dusk's light, though she had no need of illumination to vividly remember the beast's tough green scales. She saw no trace of Maia, but it was impossible to see anything with just a single eye poking out. Lena silently moved more of her head out, intent on getting a better view. When her provision pack fell, the sound broke the evening's quiet.
The dragon's wings snapped close and it raised its head. Lena's brown eyes met the monster's green orbs. There was no question of fight or flight. She turned on her heels and ran.
Dirt flew into the air as the monster tore after her. At least, that's what Lena assumed was happening behind her as what sounded like claws ripping up the ground reached her ears. She didn't dare look back to find out. She put all of her strength into her legs and prayed to Orakio that she could outrun the beast for long enough to find a place to hide.
Such was not to be. With a roar, the dragon leaped in front of her. It glared at her, its disturbingly human eyes filled with the promise of her painful demise. She wasted no time bemoaning her fate; Lena drew her needler as quickly as a lightning flash and opened fire.
The vicious little weapon spat out high-velocity flechettes that could tear through flesh like rotted fruit. The sharp darts struck the middle of the monster's face. The beast roared as it rocked back on its heels, its thick arms in front of its snout. Lena swore. Just a little to the left, and she'd have blinded the dragon. That would have bought her enough time to run and hide. She shifted a little, preparing herself for another retreat. She had to escape.
Her eyes glanced to the left as her center of balance changed and her body tensed to run. Unfortunately, it seemed the dragon had divined her intention. When her eyes focused on the monster again, she had enough time to register its thick, curved tail before it hit her in the stomach and sent her through the air. The world faded to black when she hit the ground.
When she came to again, she became aware of the smell of smoke and the sound of a fire crackling. Lena winced as she sat up, her hand automatically going for her needler.
"Your weapon's over yonder," a male voice said in an unfamiliar accent.
Blind panic seized her as she quickly felt her clothing. It all seemed to still be in place, including the leather between her breasts, so it seemed she had not been... she turned her mind resolutely from that train of thought. She turned her gaze toward the source of that masculine voice.
The man was sitting cross-legged across the fire from her, his mouth in a smirk Lena suspected was his principal facial expression. It seemed likely that smile had gotten him out of more than his fair share of scrapes. He had long green hair tied into ponytail that hung off his right shoulder and his brown traveling clothes and a white cloak desperately needed the dedicated attention of a laundress.
"Hi there," he called out cheerfully. "How do you feel?"
"Muddle headed," she said cautiously, her hands clasped over her breasts. She actually felt alright, but it would be best to gain whatever advantages she could now. Besides, for a man in a mourning color, he didn't look sad, which struck her as suspicious. "Who are you? What happened?"
"Name's Lyle," he said with a winning smile. "I found you out there in the grass."
"How did I end up there?" she asked, her tone of voice confused and a little bit helpless. Appealing to a man's protective instincts was a bit dirty, but she was alone with a strange male with a strange accent, and something felt very wrong.
"No idea, just found you when I was walking by. It seemed like it might offend L-ord Orakio if I left a cute little girl like you out there to get nibbled on by wild beasts, so I carried you over here."
Simple lies were the hardest to disprove. She turned big, brown eyes on her alleged rescuer and cooed, "Oh, thank you so very much! You've saved me!"
"Oh, not a problem," Lyle replied easily. "The least I could do."
"But it was so chivalrous of you! Truly, you are a good, no, a great man!"
The smirk was back as he casually waved off her gratitude. His body language proclaimed he was at ease. It was time to spring the trap; otherwise she would never live down playing the role of starry-eyed rescued damsel. "I'm absolutely famished. Do you suppose there's a chance of something to eat?"
"Oh, of course. I found your bag of supplies after I brought you here."
Lyle turned from her and reached for her pack of provisions. Very sloppy of him. "I never said they were my supplies."
The green-haired man froze for just a moment. Lena didn't wait for him to react. She threw herself toward her needler.
Violent winds caught her before she could land and roughly tossed her back into the air. This time, she managed to protect her head when she landed. By the time she sat up again, Lyle was looming over her, a long staff in his hands.
"That was clever," he said. The smirk was still on his face, but his tone was a little rueful.
"I'm glad you approve," she said slowly as she brought her hands in front of her chest once again. Whatever it was he had used, it was obvious he was not an Orakian. That could only mean one thing. "You're a Layan."
"Well, no point denying it after that little display, is there? Yes, I'm a Layan."
How dearly she wished she had fallen deaf before he uttered such a casual confession! "You're all supposed to be sealed away. Orakio was supposed to have defeated the goddess of darkness."
"Goddess of love," Lyle said. "At least, that's what we think of her. Interesting you Orakians think of her as a goddess too. Orakio's just a demon to us."
"A fascinating theological discussion, I'm sure, but that doesn't answer how you're here," Lena said pointedly.
"Well, we were never sealed," Lyle said with a shrug. "From my point of view, you guys were the ones locked away. Though since you know what I am, I can't exactly allow you to run around."
Lena thought quickly. If he meant to kill her, there were many ways to do so, and she didn't have much time to counter him. However, she still had one last trick up her sleeve. Well, not her sleeve, exactly. She sighed a little sadly as she gathered her legs under her. "I suppose you'll take me before you kill me. I wanted my first time to be with Rhys, but thanks to Maia, I can't even be with the man I love."
"Huh? What do you—"
A glum expression on her face, Lena began to unbutton her shirt. Lyle took a step back in surprise and averted his eyes. "Hey, stop tha—"
Lena drew from its leather sheath the knife nestled between her breasts and jumped toward the taller man. Her friend Victeoiria had taught her how useful her large bosom could be, especially with the correctly designed knife. It was a secret compartment no man would ever think to search.
Her impact against Lyle felt like hitting a castle wall, but it brought the taller man down. She shoved the point of her knife against his groin before he could react. "You and I are going to have a chat. Orakio's Law may not let me kill you directly, but I haven't broken it if one little cut turns you into a eunuch."
There was silence for a few heartbeats before she heard him mutter, "Just how many loopholes can one law have?"
It was a strange thing to say, but Lena was more concerned with getting answers. "Well?"
"Alright, alright, we'll talk. One question."
"Make it a good one," she suggested dryly.
"Do you really love Rhys or was that just part of your ploy earlier?"
Lena shoved the point of her knife a little deeper into Lyle's groin. "I do love Rhys, though that's no concern of yours. When we're done chatting, I'll drag you to him and let him beat answers out of you, Lyle, or whatever your real name is."
For a man with a knife to his groin, at risk of castration, the big man suddenly seemed remarkably relaxed. He smiled at her. "Lyle really is my name, and I look forward to our little chat."
For some strange reason, Lena had a hunch this man was about to make her life even more complicated than it already was. It was not a pleasant thought.