"What will it take to make you understand that I'm the descendant of Orakio?" Rhys roared in a voice Lyle was certain could be heard all the way back in Hazatak.
"No one has ever found Lord Orakio's Kingdom of Landen! Go peddle your lies to rubes and peasants!"
The guard captain did a decent job of trying to equal Rhys' stentorian bellows, but it was very obvious that the Prince's battlefield voice outmatched anything the man could do. That also meant Lyle's poor ears were ringing long before half the army of Agoe had arrived on the doorstep of the castle. The bright, warm weather and melting snow meant the crowd of spectators had started forming around the first time the Prince of Landen tossed some guards into the mud. Rhys was perfectly justified in doing so, if you asked Lyle; it was the height of bad manners for some rude, disheveled louts to try to manhandle royalty. It was just unfortunate that it made things so much more complicated.
"Why are we here again?" Lyle asked Mieu as she crouched nearby, one of her eyes on Rhys and the other on the dice game he was playing with some of the spectators.
"Prince Rhys suspects that Maia is in the Layan lands to the north. He wants support from the Orakian king here to go rescue her."
"Didn't you say he left Landen just with the clothes on his back and a knife? It seemed like he was ready to rescue her all by himself. Why the change of heart?" Lyle asked.
"He wouldn't have had even those if his childhood friend hadn't rescued him," Mieu remarked dryly. "Give our hotheaded prince his due. If he doesn't have to fight outnumbered, he won't."
Lyle sighed. "Yeah, but the concept of 'too many, don't fight' seems lost to him."
That was probably the understatement of the century. Rhys had already tossed, backhanded, kicked, parried, blocked, and plain old beaten silly a dozen and more guardsmen. Ordinarily, you would suppose they would gang up on the solitary swordsman intent on getting into the castle, but Wren had helpfully demonstrated the potential consequences of such an action with one of those bullets of his. The big cyborg had also done art a great service since the statue now missing its head had been absolutely hideous.
"Tricks! It was nothing but tricks!"
"You can't catch a sword with a trick! You'd know that if you went one day without a hangover, you thick-headed drunkard!"
It was Mieu's turn to sigh. "I see we're back to the denial stage."
"Sounds like it," Lyle said as he tossed the dice and groaned at his bad throw. A large, stout man with flaming hair and a thick, long beard nodded pleasantly as he pulled the large pile of loot toward himself. The big man took his time when it came to tossing the dice, but he never failed to get a high roll. It was like he took into account everything from how the wind blew, how the men breathed, and the movements of his hand to get the roll he wanted. Which galled all the more since they were using Lyle's lucky dice!
The big man looked at Lyle. "Another go?"
"Give my ego a chance to recover," Lyle grunted. "How in the world are you doing that? I've never seen anyone get so many high rolls."
A shrug met his query. "It's only math. Proper calculation of angle, force, and direction helps reduce random variables to a minimum."
"Uh, right," Lyle said a bit uncertainly. "Why don't you keep doing that while I sit this one out? My legs are getting cramped."
"Sounds good. Just don't go too far. These are your dice."
"Don't remind me," Lyle muttered under his breath as he stood up. He had been doing so well before the big man had joined. He stretched and looked around with interest, ignoring the ongoing argument at the gate.
Agoe was a pretty enough town, its houses packed tightly together along its narrow paved streets. Each domicile was painted a light, cheerful color that seemed part of a pattern, as houses never clashed with each other, but rather combined to create a soothing visual effect. It was a nice touch that gave the town a good aesthetic. The baked clay tiles of the roofs were all a pretty pink, while the windows of the upper floors had window boxes filled with flowers and herbs. It would be such a pity to burn it down.
A breeze drifted from the east, where Agoe's harbor stood. The three kingdoms of Aquatica had each developed strong navies to supplement their armies. Agoe's fleet was the largest, though that made sense since it had the most work to do. Over the past thousand years, the Orakian kingdom's domain had been cut in half, which cost them the valuable metal from the mountains Shusoran now owned. Without metal, their factories could not produce cyborgs, which meant they could not replenish their armies, leaving them ripe for a final push from Shusoran to wipe them out. To compensate for their weakness, the Agoens did two things; they traded the substantial food surplus from the rich farmlands they still held with the independent towns of the mainland, and raided Shusoran for metal.
Not that it mattered. Ships cost money, and with each year, Agoe became poorer. Worse yet for the Orakian kingdom, they were expected to guard from Layan pirates those independent Orakian towns that did not even pay tribute . Eventually, they wouldn't even be able to afford to fight. When the time came, Cille and Shusoran would wipe out the Kingdom of Agoe, and turn their attentions to the mainland.
At least, that had been the plan.
"Do you suppose they'll ever believe him?" Lyle asked Mieu, still crouched. It was still hard to imagine that the pretty redhead was a cyborg, but Rhys' stunt with the sword-catch had converted Lyle into a believer.
"Well, there might be one way. That castle of theirs is built on an old Orakian fortress. From the looks of it, the gate still works, so the key should as well."
"Key? What key?" Lyle looked at the gate, a solid black metal barrier, all one piece, Orakio's sunburst prominent. "I don't see anywhere to put a key."
Mieu walked toward her still-arguing master. "You'll see."
Perplexed, Lyle followed. The pretty redhead tapped Rhys on the shoulder. The Orakian prince turned his glare away from the hapless guards. If eyes had been capable of launching fireballs, Mieu would have been scorched by two direct hits. You had to give that guard captain credit for standing his ground in the face of that. Although it was entirely more likely the Orakian was too stupid to give in.
"You know, Prince, there's one way we might be able to prove you are who you say you are," Mieu said in an innocent tone that Lyle instantly found suspicious.
Rhys leaped at the promise of validation. "How?"
"Just a moment," Mieu said before she turned to the guard captain wearing her most charming smile. "Excuse me, but can anything open that gate from the outside now that it's been closed?"
The man's chest swelled; it seemed he wanted to impress what looked to him to be a pretty girl. "It's been said that only the blood of Lord Orakio himself can open this gate!"
"Thank you for being so helpful," Mieu said before she turned to the now-wary Rhys.
"You're not going to bite me again, are you?" Wait a minute, what did Rhys mean by again?
"No, but I am going to cut you."
Rhys' flat tone of disbelief found a compatriot in Lyle. How would cutting Rhys open the gate?
"If you'll come with me," Mieu told the guard captain, that sunny smile still in place as she dragged an unwilling Rhys toward the gate. To the side of the gate was a small panel. The captain started to laugh.
"You don't intend to try to use that to open the gate, do you? That thing hasn't worked since the days of the first kings!"
Lyle watched as Mieu leaned in close to the panel, her gaze on a small glass orb. The captain's guffaws stopped as a small device silently extended out over the button-covered panel and opened a glass covering. A resigned Rhys let Mieu tug his hand over the machine and did not flinch or cry out when the redhead cut his finger with one of the long, narrow blades of her claw weapon. A drop of blood fell on the open slot before the device snapped shut and withdrew back into the recesses of the machine.
For a brief moment, nothing happened. Then the heavy metal door began to move upward with ominous slowness.
The guard captain found his voice first. "L-LAYAN MAGIC!"
"Don't be thick, Ilin," a familiar voice said from behind Lyle. Good thing, too, because Rhys looked ready to stomp the guard captain's face into the mud.
The big man strode forward, an intent look on his face as he brushed past the offended guard captain and toward the panel. He stared at the device closely, even leaned in close like Mieu had. When nothing happened, he stroked his beard thoughtfully.
"It's Layan magic, Jos! Nothing can open the gate from this side! Nothing!"
"Except one thing, apparently," the big man -Jos- said in an absentminded tone. "The blood of Lord Orakio."
"That's preposterous! That...it's a trick!"
The big man turned on the guard captain and stomped forward, a hostile gleam in his eye as he loomed over the shorter man. "You know what the most consistent thing about technology is? No matter how complex it is, at the end of the day, it's simple. We can always depend on it to do its job. If machines have bad days, you just need to take a good look inside. Once you know the problem, it's fixable."
A thumb went over one burly shoulder in the direction of the panel. "You can't trick technology just by looking at it. You need tools, time, preparation and technical knowledge. That panel's job is to open the gate, something that we've never been able to get it to do. They just opened it with a drop of blood. You know what that means, Ilin? You've been backtalking Lord Orakio's blood."
The guard captain went pale as Jos amiably ambled over to Rhys. He went down on one knee. "Welcome to Agoe Castle, Prince of Landen. I'm Jos Arl, Agoe's Chief Engineer."
Rhys looked so vindicated that Lyle felt like saying something snarky. Unfortunately, nothing came to mind. It was a bit hard to be witty when you were in the company of the descendant of the greatest demon ever known.
"Let me take you to the King and Queen, my Lord Prince of Landen," Jos Arl said as he rose back to his feet and walked into the castle.
Lyle fell into step beside Rhys and said the thing that was top of mind to him. "I can't believe it. You really are descended from Orakio."
Rhys shot Lyle a tight smile as they walked deeper into the castle. As they walked through the superficial glory of the corridor, Lyle noted empty pedestals where statues had once stood and discolorations on the wall where paintings had once hung. The rugs were threadbare and second-rate, the clothing of the servants much darned. It brought no joy to Lyle to see that his mortal enemies were in such dire straits.
It bothered him that he felt no joy.
"My Lord Prince, is it true that the young lady and the big armored man with you are cyborgs? I heard it during the argument with Ilin."
"The 'young lady' can speak for herself," Mieu said dryly. "And yes, it's true. The accurate designation for us, by the way, is 'android.' Try to keep that in mind."
Jos Arl stroked his beard thoughtfully. "I stand corrected. Android. Interesting. Must be an ancient word, but I've never heard it before now. Is there any difference between you and a normal cyborg?"
"Beyond the fact I'm pretty? Plenty."
Lyle shook his head as Jos Arl the Chief Engineer engaged Mieu in deep conversation way over his head. Machines. They should all be destroyed as unwholesome imitations of life, but Mieu acted... well, like a normal person. If not for her mechanical strength, he would say she was exactly like any other pretty Layan girl. Well, except for that incredibly skimpy outfit that just drew attention to those long, fine, shapely legs that had been lovingly crafted by some long-dead Orakian.
"If you burn a hole into my cyborg's legs, Lyle, she's going to end up cutting your eyes out."
And magnificently deadly, of course, but there was nothing wrong with looking, was there? He said as much to Rhys.
"I wouldn't try my luck, were I you. She bites."
Lyle thought about it. "All things considered, I'd say it's worth it."
They were in the throne room before Rhys could make a snappy reply. Like the rest of the castle, beneath the veneer of opulence were the obvious signs of downtrodden finery, the marks of hasty repair and manipulation of display so what wealth remained seemed more impressive. The nobles were just barely dressed for their station, their threadbare elegance and dull jewelry at odds with their stiff-necked aristocratic struts. Underneath it all, there was an air of melancholy and resignation.
Even the King and Queen of Agoe suffered from it, their black royal raiments faded by age to a lacklustre dark gray. The King sat on a throne that seemed to be missing a few jewels, a tall, slender man in his middle years with the weight of an impoverished land on his shoulders as he stared down at the ground. His Queen, a shorter, plumper woman, had her hand on his in a gesture of silent support.
It was the first time he saw his mortal enemies in person. They looked...well, like any decent Layan rulers would in their predicament.
The King of Agoe looked up, surprised. Before he could say anything, Jos Arl announced, "Your Highness, Enti Le Rada II, King of Agoe, Defender of the Southern Plains and the Eastern Mainland, Navarch of Aquatica, I bring to you the Prince of Landen, a man truly of the blood of Lord Orakio, proven by the technology of Agoe."
"Jos Arl, what is this?" Le Rada said, irritated. "I've little time for one of your rants on machines."
"This is no rant, Your Highness," Jos Arl said, unperturbed. "This man opened the castle gate that was said could only be opened with the blood of Lord Orakio. He opened it with a single drop of blood, Your Highness."
"That's preposterous," Le Rada protested. "I may not have the technical knowledge you have, but I've studied enough to know that gate is impossible to open!"
"Your Highness, half the castle guard saw him open it with only a drop of blood," Jos Arl replied, an avalanche intent on getting its information across. "There was a crowd of your loyal subjects who saw him do so. I saw him do it, Your Highness, saw him do something I've spent years trying to do. He had no time, no tools, no way to falsify entry. Not even Layan magic can get through the gate. He had only one thing - a drop of Lord Orakio's blood."
"Is it possible?" Agoe's king whispered, shocked. Louder, he asked, "Are you truly of Lord Orakio's bloodline?"
"I am," Rhys replied with an unassailable royalness about him that Lyle found surprising. It was like a mask that Rhys took out just for the occasion. Or was the amiable hothead Lyle could easily picture with his feet on a table of a tavern somewhere downing drinks the mask? Which was the real Rhys?
"Could you be an answer to our prayers? Did Lord Orakio send you?" Hope began to shine in Le Rada's eyes as he got to his feet."Tell me, my Lord, what is your name?"
"I am Rhys Sa Riik, Prince of Landen," Rhys said in that princely tone.
Unable to resist, Lyle spoke up loudly. "He's also the one who fixed the weather, by the by, so any and all thanks to any and all higher powers for the end of the long winter should be redirected toward Rhys. Any and all nubile maidens eager to throw themselves at his feet, please form an orderly line."
Le Rada's eyes almost seemed to pop out of his skull as he stared at Rhys. In contrast, Jos Arl tilted his head, his stance clinically interested. "Is that true?" Agoe's king asked, a slight quaver in his voice.
"Well, my friend here's giving me more credit than I deserve," Rhys said with an embarrassed shrug that Lyle found a relief. "I went to fix it, but Wren did the hard work."
"Wren wouldn't have done the hard work if you hadn't gone to get him and told him to do it, you know," Lyle observed. "Sorry, Prince, but you're going to have to own up to saving our world."
"It just sounds...a bit much, when you actually hear someone else say it," Rhys said with another one of those shrugs.
"Oh, my Lord, surely you can save us!" Le Rada cried. "Our war with the Layans goes poorly! My people are not strong enough to beat Shusoran."
It was obvious Rhys did not expect to hear this. He pursed his lips as he concealed the dismay that had been in his eyes. "I see. Am I to presume that your defenses here would not hold back a Layan attack?
The Queen answered. "If the Layans attack, we'll be wiped out!"
"Please help us, Prince of Lord Orakio's blood!" Agoe's king cried, his hands extended in supplication.
Hesitation crept into the Prince of Landen's stance as Rhys crossed his arms, deep in thought. Lyle sympathized; this would be the second detour the blue-haired man would make in his quest to rescue Maia. At length, he sighed. "I will help."
Cheers broke out throughout the throne room as the nobles threw their hands into the air or embraced each other. What they expected just one man to do against an entire kingdom, Lyle didn't know, but it was obvious they expected great things. "They're sure excited over that drop of Orakio's blood in your veins, aren't they?"
"Very," Rhys said resignedly. "At this rate, I just hope I get to keep it inside my veins."
"You could always say no, you know," Lyle noted. "I doubt they'd blame you."
"They would, but not half as bitterly as I'd blame myself," Rhys replied grimly. He raised his voice to be heard over the tumult. "This may seem a bit of an odd question, but did anyone hear of a girl being taken captive by the Layans?"
"Aye," said a soldier in heavily dented armor as he stepped forward. "I was part of a reconnaissance mission to Shusoran recently. When we entered their city, the Layans were in hiding - we found no trace of them!" The soldier shook his head. "We didn't linger, but the cutest girl I ever saw was taken into the enemy's castle."
A smile broke out on Rhys' face as hope obviously surged in him that Maia would be in Shusoran. Instead of the resignation that had filled him before, he was eager to go to Shusoran. It wouldn't surprise Lyle if Rhys chose to leave immediately rather than rest a bit. It would be in character.
It was just too bad the Prince of Landen was walking into Lyle's trap.