Lena stared dubiously at the overfed Chirper that had taken to following her around ever since she had arrived in Shusoran. The cute little beast always looked peevish as it flapped around and squawked at her. A dreadful nuisance when she did things it did not like, which seemed to be just about everything she did. She had discovered, however, that food would make it behave, as would very tight hugs. Her hands on her hips, she stared down at the Chirper.
"I want to dig in the gardens. If you aren't going to behave, I'll smoosh you."
It felt a bit silly to be talking to a Chirper, but most pets seemed to understand at least some speech. This one certainly seemed to; it narrowed its little eyes at her in what Lena took for a displeased squint as its feelers shifted forward a bit before they returned to their original position. The answering squawk sounded more resigned than peevish.
"Good. Now let me change."
Lena began to tug at the long green strip of unstitched cloth that had been draped around her body by one of the girls in the castle. Shusorani… rather… Layan fashion differed drastically from the dresses she was used to wearing. Layan women had blouses and petticoats like women in Landen and Satera did, but their crowning piece was the incredibly long drape they called a sati. The cloth was woven as one piece many feet long, plain on one end, with two long decorative borders running its considerable length and ending at the other end with that same border. The ones she had been gifted with were woven with elaborate designs that varied from the geometric to the floral to the figurative, but she had seen other girls in the castle wear drapes woven with precious stones or with scenes fit for a tapestry.
A moody sigh escaped her lips as she unwrapped herself. Other girls. Layan girls. But for the beautiful and exotic clothes they wore, they were just like her. They were Layan, yet they giggled and cooed over warriors and lords just like Orakian girls did. They were witches, yet they gossiped and danced like Orakian young ladies did. They were the spawn of the goddess of darkness, yet they liked to play in the sun just as much as Orakians did. What her eyes and ears told her couldn't be denied.
The Layans weren't the monsters of legend. They were people.
While she had confronted Lyle in Landen, the reality had not truly sunken in. A city...no, a nation filled with Layans, at war with Orakians, with another country of them on two islands to the north. It boggled her mind.
To be honest, she still wasn't sure how Lyle had managed to get her here in the first place. When she had captured him in Landen, he had been nothing but cooperative and helpful. The green-haired man had not been discomfited even after she had tied him up using strips from his cloak. Lena had had things under control as he told his story, of another world locked in winter, of his search for the missing Maia, of his journey through a gateway barred by magic into a passage of technology, of his return to Orakian lands at her panicked insistence.
She had not believed him, of course. He had been so honest and sincere in his insistence that she found herself convinced into letting him prove one part of his story. They had marched to the Edge of the World, to the cave he had insisted had been how he had entered the world of Landen both times. True enough, they had not been able to enter as something invisible repelled them gently but firmly. The cave was as passable as a castle wall.
Of course, when she objected that he had not been able to enter despite the claims he had made in his story, he had insisted that sleeping at the boundary of the barrier was the only way it would reach out and let them in. So she had once again agreed to test his tale and they had made camp at the cave's edge. She had fallen asleep, her back to the rough rock, her needler in Lyle's direction should he try anything.
When Lena had awakened the next day, she had thought she was still dreaming. Somehow, they were at the bottom of a metal staircase, surrounded by more technology than existed in every foundry in the entire world combined. The transparent glass and dull gray metal that surrounded them was shaped into massive blocks and columns that blinked and hummed with activity.
From there, it had seemed like such a small step to continue through that fantastic journey through a mechanical story land. Such a small, necessary step to observe a world covered in unseasonable winter. Such a small, necessary, insignificant step to go on to witness a Layan kingdom.
Lyle is a sneaky, conniving bastard.
There was no real heat in that thought as she marched out of the rooms he had ordered set aside for his guest, dressed in her recently laundered traveling clothes. Just like him to "forget" he just so happened to be Shusoran's uncrowned King. There was something about Lyle that made people want to like him, a quality the scoundrel used to good effect. He was also cunning. One needed no more proof of that than the way he turned being a prisoner to his advantage.
For now, she was his guest. One that couldn't leave, but at least it wasn't the dungeon she would have tossed him into if their positions were reversed. Lyle had told none of his people she was Orakian before he had left to find a way to fix the weather, and she had kept to herself to avoid that little bit of information from slipping out. She dreaded to imagine what the Layans would do to her if they found out.
"Your pardon, my lady?"
Lena jumped when a soft, shy voice called out to her from behind. They know, they've come to kill me, they're—
She shut down those thoughts and turned to encounter a girl as short as Lena was, around her own age, a lovely young lady with big, soulful eyes and a head topped with green curls. She was dressed in a sky blue version of the sati that looked exquisite on her. The girl extended her hands to offer her a white garment before she gave Lena a shy smile. "Um, I've noticed you like to go out to dig in the gardens, and it's still a bit cold, so..."
Lena took the gift, but before she could look at it, the girl turned and fled down the hall and rounded a corner. Lena unfurled the gift, a cozy shawl that would easily keep off the springtime chill. The only problem was the funereal white, but amongst the Layans, it was clear white was a very important color, as important as black was to Orakians. She couldn't reject such a thoughtful gift simply because the color was not a cultural fit.
The girl had peeked her head out to watch her. Lena smiled and waved her thanks. The girl smiled back before she left. With a sigh, Lena put the drape on her, determined to wear it no matter what.
That did bring up something important. The weather had grown sunny and warm recently. She could only suppose Lyle had succeeded in his efforts to fix the weather. That was for the good, as it meant an escape from the dusty library she had spent most of her time in. Though time surrounded by so many tomes had proven useful in more ways than one. Her hand curled lightly around the Moon Stone that hung a little above the knife between her breasts. Who would have thought the Layans of another world knew of this treasure?
The garden soil had softened from its winter hardness. Lena attacked the ground with her borrowed spade. The gardeners had not yet returned to their duties, wary that the warmth was a false lull, but as Lyle's guest, they had grudgingly obeyed her demands for gardening tools and seeds. Well, she was certain her Princess of Satera persona had helped. Either way, she had only taken the seeds she knew, wary of erring with unknown plants. She might be a guest against her will, but Lyle certainly wouldn't be able to claim she had not been a helpful guest.
She had lost herself in the soothing ritual of digging and sowing when a familiar male voice broke the silence. "Lena! Are you here?"
She stood up and stared. Sure enough, there he was on the flagstones, a touch out of breath as he surveyed the gardens, his pony-tailed hair a mess. She stood up and walked over to him, perplexed at his unannounced return. "What is the matter? Why are you he—"
"No time," Lyle replied. Before she could even gather breath to protest, he slung her over his shoulder like a sack of vegetables. What he said next drove the nascent outrage out of her head. "Rhys is here and we have to go."
"Rhys is here?" Her words came out in stunned squeak before she realized she was absolutely covered in dirt, mud, and grime. "Wait! Lyle! I'm filthy! He can't see me like this! No! Stop!"
Lyle took off running, her protest ignored. Rhys was here! Why was he in Shusoran? How was he in Shusoran? He didn't know Lyle's trick to get to Aquatica! Did he? How? Why?
Those questions plagued her as they ran through the halls of the castle. Even with her over his shoulder, Lyle covered the distance between the throne room and the gardens quickly. The room was decorated with mosaics depicting winged dragons far more menacing than the one that had invaded Landen, their leathery wings blotting out the light as figures recognizable as cyborgs were blasted by their flames. The red carpet proceeded from the large double door straight to the silver throne on its dais, an elaborately designed piece shaped into a collection of dragons standing on each other, with wings, claws, and tails turned into the back, armrests, legs, and seat. The ceiling was covered with a series of gorgeous paintings of various women; the one woman over the throne was the most striking, a beauty with perfect cheekbones and straight nose, her eyes a dark blue that was almost black, her hair a marvelous length of gold, her only decoration beyond her red robes a red dot on her forehead.
Lyle set her down on the dais. "Sit here and try not to say anything."
"What? But Lyle—"
"Trust me," said the trickster with that ever-present smirk she could have etched into stone from memory with her eyes closed.
Lena snorted as she put her hands in her lap. "My mother once told me that whenever a man said that, it could only mean trouble," she replied dryly.
The violent roar of weaponry pulled her attention to the double doors and she gasped. Rhys was here. A tall, sturdy man in black armor fired a heavy weapon past the doorways as he retreated, one step at a time, into the throne room. Rhys and a redheaded woman she had never seen before slammed the doors shut together before he sagged against the doorway for a moment. Her heart filled with something as she looked at him. He was weary, his blue clothes and white armor covered in blood, though none of it seemed to be from him. His face looked far better than it had been in Landen's dungeon, filled with that undeniable fire that was as much a part of him as his blue hair and eyes.
Rhys looked up and gave a start of surprise. He blurted, "It's her! How did she get here?"
She heard Lyle snort. "I found her."
Lyle found her? Well, that was one way to put it! Rhys' reply made her feel a bit better about it. "Please help me take her away, Lyle!"
"If you want her back, fight for her!"
Lyle brought his hand up and said a single word. "Foi!"
A fireball struck the ground Rhys had stood on as the Orakian prince dodged the surprise attack. "You're a Layan!" he shouted, outraged.
"That's right," Lyle replied as he lightly spun his staff. "As a matter of fact, I'm Prince of Shusoran."
"You led us into a trap! What have you done to Lena?"
No wonder damsels in distress marry their rescuers, Lena thought as her heart fluttered. They look so...heroic when they act like that.
"Try to beat it out of me," Lyle replied with a sneer. "Let's see you really fight, Rhys! Foi!"
Lena gasped as first fire and then wind lashed out at Rhys, elemental attacks summoned by Lyle. The white cloak Rhys had worn was sacrificed to distract the Layan prince before the two men came together in close combat. Blade met staff as they dueled with intense ferocity; their metal weapons rang with the fierceness of their will to win. Lyle had the advantage as he pushed Rhys back. The Layan prince met his Orakian counterpart's attack with little effort. Anxiety filled her as Rhys gave foot after precious foot as Lyle taunted him.
Win, Rhys, please win!
Suddenly, Lyle leaped back to evade an attack from Rhys.
"You don't know anything, Layan," Rhys said angrily as he removed the scabbard at his hip and sheathed his sword within a heartbeat. "I'll show you just how ignorant you are."
"Do your best, Orakian."
Lena blinked. Metal clanged against metal before the scabbard struck Lyle in the side of the head. The Layan prince fell to the soft velvet of the room's red carpet. Lyle brought his arm up, but Rhys twisted the hand. The Orakian prince dragged his counterpart to his feet. Lena winced as Rhys headbutted Lyle and followed up the attack with a punch that made her teeth ache in sympathy.
First blood belonged to Rhys, but it was obvious that Lyle was not done yet. The Layan prince grabbed the blue-haired man by the collar and slugged him. Rhys held onto Lyle's cloak as the Orakian prince launched a powerful uppercut into Lyle's jaw. Lena grimaced as the two men held on to each other and traded vicious blows without remorse.
It was combat of the most primitive sort. Lena looked away as they continued to pummel each other. Whenever she glimpsed in their direction, she would catch one of them take a punch or kick before a vengeful blow came from the assaulted. An eternity dragged on before she heard someone fall.
"You're a lot tougher than I thought, Rhys," Lyle groaned from the ground. He gestured vaguely toward the throne. "Someone wants to speak with you, by the way."
That bruised face, with its split lip, right eye already swelling shut, turned to her. Even battered as he was, she still found him beautiful. She tried to be solemn to cover up the butterflies in her stomach as he approached her. "You've come a long way since we last met."
An imp of the perverse possessed her, however. Lena smiled. "What took you so long? I've been waiting!"
That wonderful laugh emerged from deep within his belly before he swept her up into a hug. She snuggled into the embrace and into him. It was such a wonderful feeling being in his arms. It was safe, warm, strong...
Lyle groaned again. "Mieu, Wren, would you kindly open the doors? I'm sure my people are outside listening, and someone there has to have healing skills. I feel like a stampede happened on my face and I don't want to look like it did."
Rhys gently set her down as a wry smile tugged at his torn lips. He turned in Lyle's direction, his arm over her shoulders. "You deserved it."
"Yeah, I did. What's your point?"
She couldn't help it. She giggled. "Maybe that will teach you not to be so clever by half."
"It didn't. I'll just keep in mind that I don't want to engage in fisticuffs ever again."
Lena smiled up at Rhys, her arms wrapped around him. "You should probably do as he asks or he'll keep whining about it."
"Alright, alright," he said. "Mieu, please open the door."
"I'm sure His Gracelessness appreciates it," came the dry comment from the redhead.
"He does," Lyle replied, still stretched out on the ground.
Lena sat down and gently tugged Rhys to join her. As he stretched his legs, a swarm of people came in. Layan ladies in their satis with their noblemen in their silks rushed in, Shusorani soldiers right behind them. It was quite a crowd. A double row of Layan women in red tunics drew arrows and aimed them at the throne, at Mieu, and at the black-armored giant Lena supposed was Wren. She felt tension fill Rhys' body before Lyle spoke up.
"It's fine, it's fine," the Layan prince said, gesturing vaguely. "Don't worry about it."
"But Your Grace, they're...!"
"Yeah, yeah, Orakians, I know. No big deal. The ugly lug is the one who fixed the weather. I mean the one on the dais, not the one with the big gun."
If the situation was not so dire and she could have captured the incredulity in every face and put it on a painting, she would have. No one knew where to look, so they alternated between their prince on the floor and the Orakian seated on the dais.
"But...Your Grace, he's just a..."
"Commoner? Actually, he's the prince of his kingdom. He's from Landen, by the way."
Trust Lyle to say the things that would leave everyone shocked in the most casual manner possible. Many gasped as they remembered that Landen was Orakio's kingdom. She would probably feel the same way if someone walked into Satera's throne room and announced she was related to the goddess of darkness.
Those archers all focused their attention on Rhys, his attendants forgotten. The bowstrings were taut, ready to release their deadly arrows. Wren and Mieu moved to Rhys' side, ready to defend him. Just who were these two that they were so ready to protect Rhys? Was this how things would end? Death by Layan arrows?
Everything balanced on the tip of a sword.
Someone pressed through the crowd. Lena was surprised to see it was the cute girl that had given her the shawl she now wore. The girl visibly trembled as she walked toward them, the pressure of hundreds of eyes on her back as people watched and weighed her actions. Everything depended on what happened next.
The girl shook like a leaf in a maelstrom as she stopped right in front of them. Her eyes were filled with fear and determination as she spread her arms. "W-welcome to Sh-shusoran. W-would you like h-healing, Prince of L-landen?"
Lena had to admire the girl. She was standing in front of someone that she knew was descended from the ancient enemy of her people, that to her was a powerful demon from stories that must have given her nightmares as a child, and was welcoming him. She was visibly terrified, yet there she stood. Lena looked up at Rhys.
A smile appeared on his battered face. "Yes, please. Thank you for the gift."
Dainty hands reached out and lay gently on either side of Rhys' face. "Res," said the girl.
Before her eyes, Lena watched in astonishment as the bruises and cuts faded from sight. Within a few moments, Rhys looked like himself, without blemish or harm. Layan magic.
"Oy, what about me?"
A squeak emerged from the girl's voice as she turned and raced toward Lyle. She fell to her knees and quickly grabbed Lyle's face. "I'm sorry, Your Grace, I didn't mean-I hadn't-it wasn't-I mean I'd never forget about you-I mean-aaaaaaah, Res!"
A moment later, Lyle sat up, looking exactly as he normally did. He flashed a smile at the girl who had healed him."Thank you, cute little lady."
It took the blush that suffused her cheeks for Lena to realize that the girl was in love with Lyle. She was suddenly aware of how close she was sitting with Rhys. I saw him first. He was mine long before he ever came across you, you Layan chit.
Before her jealousy could continue speaking to her, Lyle addressed Rhys. "By the way, Maia's not here."
"Oh," said Rhys, a bit disappointed. Lyle was lucky Lena lacked his powers. She would have gladly set the green-haired man on fire for ruining the moment.
"Yes, your bride is in another castle," Lyle said with a shrug. "The castle of Cille, across the sea."
"I don't suppose you'd lend us a boat?" Rhys asked.
"I would, but Cille knows about you. Their navy is patrolling the straits. Nothing will sneak through by sea."
Lena took her jealousy by the throat and strangled it. She wanted Rhys to be happy, and right now, continuing his quest would make him happy.
Keep telling yourself that.
"Before we get Maia, we must backtrack a bit," she said firmly, startling both men. They turned their gazes toward her. "After Lyle abandoned me here to my own devices and before you fixed the weather, Rhys, I did a lot of reading.
"Once upon a time, a sand bar connected this island to Cille at low tides. The sand bar won't form unless the moon returns. According to the books, Orakio took the Moon Stone and the Moon Tear from something called the 'Tower of Climate' and drove the moons apart. If we find the Tower of Climate, we can use the stones to return the moons."
"The Tower of Climate?" Rhys looked at Mieu. "You don't suppose that weather control tower in Aridia is...?"
The redhead nodded. "The satellite control system is indeed within Climatrol. However, the keys to the moons were removed shortly before I was put to sleep by my master."
"I have the Moon Tear, but I've never seen this Moon Stone," Lyle said with a frown.
"That's perfect, then," Lena said contently.
"How is it perfect? Without the Moon Stone, we can't—" Lyle cut off abruptly when she drew the Moon Stone from its hiding place between her breasts. She flashed Lyle a cruel smile as she knew perfectly well what he was thinking.
"Return to Aridia and put my Moon Stone and Lyle's Moon Tear into the satellite control system. That will bring the moon back to its proper place and open a land bridge to where Maia is being held." Lena smiled up at Rhys. "Let's go rescue Maia!"
She didn't know when she had decided her course, but she was resolved to it. All's fair in love and war. I have until we return here to get you to fall in love with me.