Stars twinkled far above, enchanting highlights on the black veil of the nighttime sky. The diminutive torches had bathed the sea of sand a pale white for hundreds of years. Now, a new night had been formed as the stars were joined by two heavenly visitors, giant orbs that dominated the inky velvet with their long-missing presences.
Rhys lay on his back, his most recently acquired cloak a pillow beneath his head as he gazed up at the sky. A dark amethyst in the western sky now presided over Landen's stars. To the east, a blue heavenly body dominated the darkness of Aquatica. Only from Aridia could both moons of the new night be seen.
He had done that.
Not alone, but he had changed the night his ancestor had created. With the Moon Stone and the Moon Tear, the moons had been recalled from their exile. With his own eyes, he bore witness to their grandeur. For the first time, he understood why Orakio's sword art had been named after something no one had seen in a thousand years. The moons were larger than the brightest stars, more menacing than the highest mountains.
They were more beautiful than the purest gemstones.
The wind carried the smell of dust, flint, and fire. There had been other changes. Once, there had been only one world, Landen. Now, there were three. Once, a Layan had not been seen in a thousand years. Now...
Rhys shifted to his side, his back to their campsite. Now...
"What was the point of all this?" Rhys had asked Lyle in private, out of Lena's sight. He had restrained his temper because he had not wanted to spoil her obvious good spirits with a scene, but he had wanted answers.
"I suppose you're asking why I brought you here," Lyle had replied calmly.
"Not just that! What was the meaning of this entire debacle? Was this all a game to you?"
There was a brief silence as Lyle had stared off into nowhere. Then, "Before I was even born, we were fighting and killing our hated enemies. When I was a little boy, I was taught one thing: hate the Orakians. When I became a knight, I received the ancient title of Sirjee and swore before Laya and her champion Lune that I would fight Orakio and his evil followers to my last breath.
"Winter came but did not go. We slowly starved. Food was rationed and rationed again. We were certain our ancient enemies had committed some evil pact with Orakio. But our scouts reported that they were in the same condition as we.
"One day, someone special to me vanished. When she returned, I discovered she had been in the hands of an entire world of Orakians. I thought she had been a prisoner, that she had been forced to go along with their depravity. They did her no harm. They treated her with honor. She'd even managed to fall in love with one of them, or so she told us. She refused to believe anything other than the fact that the Orakians were good. Just like that, nothing made sense.
"So I went to look for the truth. I observed them for a while. I watched the man who had been her champion search for her, so frantically and sincerely. While I did that, I stumbled onto the rumor of a place that could control the weather. Surely, that would save my people."
That smirk had appeared. "You know the rest. Climatrol, couldn't figure the stupid things out, and so on."
"But why this?" Rhys had repeated. "Hiding that you were a Layan, leading me to Shusoran, hiding everyone, loosing monsters on me, fighting me..."
"I think it was somewhere around the fifteenth repetition about 'filthy Layan magic' that I thought it a good idea not to mention I could use it," had been the dry response. "The monsters were to keep up appearances. Things couldn't be too easy for you," Lyle continued. "I had everyone hide because I wanted to see what you would do. Would you start breaking things, try to set fire to the town?"
"I tried to break down your castle wall to get inside. I also killed quite a few of your monsters."
"I'm sure the maids are cursing your name for getting blood on the carpets, but I don't hold it against you. As to why I fought you... well, I wanted to see who you really are, and nothing brings that out like a fight. You fought honorably... like a true knight."
Lyle had turned to him, one eyebrow raised. "I swore to lay down my life for you and your children, and made that oath fully conscious that it was to an Orakian. I mean it, Rhys. Ask me to do it, and I'll take a running jump off the top of the castle. You saved my world, and if you want me to pay for it with my life, I'll do it."
In the end, it was obvious the trickster was sincere. Layan or not, Lyle had never lied to him. Everything the green-haired man had said had been proven true. Not only that, there had been opportunities for Lyle to stay his hand in ways that would have caused Rhys' death. There would have been no proof such a deed had been intentional, and Laya's Law would still have been observed.
Rhys returned to lying on his back. Laya's Law. Just like his own ancestor Orakio, Laya had issued her people a command: do not kill. That law was the reason Orakians used cyborgs in their wars; they were forbidden from doing the dirty work themselves. It was now apparent that the Layans followed the same rule, only with monsters committing the slaughter in their place.
The similarity was uncanny. Where had it come from? Why had both Orakio and Laya given their followers the same command? Were they not mortal enemies? Was that not why Orakians and Layans hated each other? Why tell their peoples not to kill? Why ignore the feelings of their people? The cities, the homes, the grudges of those who had lost parents, brothers, sisters, lovers, friends...
Layan. When he thought the word, he pictured the dragon that ruined his wedding. But it wasn't just that monster, was it? It was Lyle, a charmer and a trickster, but an honorable man. It was that girl who had welcomed him despite her fear, who had had him in her power and instead of striking him down, had healed him. It was...
"You look so serious. Is everything alright?"
A grin came to his lips as Lena's head appeared in his vision, a smile on her face. They had gotten into the habit of conversation at every spare moment during the long journey from Shusoran to Climatrol. Their talks were fun and interesting, jumping from topic to topic as they thought of different things to discuss. They had never truly had quality time together, which made him aware of just how much of a misnomer "childhood friend" could be.
It honestly felt like he had only now discovered who the Princess of Satera was. Lena was a spritely, thoughtful girl, wiser than he but never in a way that got his back up. She had her passions, her determination, but they did not interfere with her good sense, as his own self-admitted hotheadness regularly did. Her good cheer was infectious and had a soothing effect on his temper. Her presence gave him a warm, comfortable feeling that he sorely needed as worry beset him.
They had spoken often of home; Lena had confirmed the tenuous grip the Crown held over Landen. She had corroborated the reports he had heard that certain nobles were on the verge of another rebellion and of the severity of his father's illness. Filled with guilt, he had pushed the party harder, eager to be done and back home. That did not mean their discussions had been halted; rather they spoke even more now. He enjoyed her company and wanted to spend even more time with her.
Satera's heiress casually extended her hand. As he had become accustomed to doing, Rhys lifted his arm and gently closed his fingers around hers. Lena lightly held onto him as she gracefully sat down next to him. After the suffocating heat of Aridia's day, she had doffed the white shawl. Her Moon Stone swung freely since she had undone a few buttons of her jacket to allow the breeze to cool her. The milky gem between her full breasts glowed in the moonlight.
"What's on your mind?"
His eyes flickered up guiltily as Lena looked at him contently. Rhys pasted a smile on his face and hoped she did not realize where his eyes had lingered. "The moons, the sky, the new night," he replied.
Her large brown eyes turned upward to the night as Lena tilted her head back thoughtfully. "They'll have to change that old phrase, won't they? 'This day in mirth and revel to dispend, till on the welkin shone the stars bright,'" she quoted.
The smile became genuine as he lifted an eyebrow at her. "Welkin?"
"Yes, welkin. It's a very old word. My father told me once that it used to mean the crystal bowl above the world the stars were attached to, but came to be a very fancy way to describe the sky overtime," Lena said defensively before she giggled. "But can you imagine that? The world enclosed in a glass bowl like a nivali! What happens if someone shakes it? Fancy the thought!"
Laughter rumbled in his throat before it emerged into the night air. "If you shake Aridia's nivali, all the sand will cling to the glass! You'd never see the sky again!"
A frown crossed her pretty face as she looked up into the night. "It would be so sad not to be able to see something as romantic as the moons." Lena's fingers rested lightly on his hand as she turned to look at him; a smile took the place of her previous gloom. "We're only just getting to know them again after such a long time apart."
"Yes, you're right," Rhys agreed as his eyes lingered on the purple moon that limned Lena's head. "The more I look at them, the more I feel like they should never have been sent away."
Lena nodded as she clasped her hands in her lap. "I wonder if the moons have changed since they were moved?"
The withdrawal of her touch produced a vague sense of loss in Rhys as he watched Satera's princess seem to retreat within. Eager to keep an undesirable silence at bay, he said, "Whatever else, their names are probably the same. The purple one is Dahlia, while the blue one is Azura."
"Oh?" Lena tilted her head with renewed interest as she returned her gaze to him. "I didn't know that. Where did you read about it?"
"Mieu told me. Never have enjoyed reading," Rhys replied with a slight frown. "I've always much preferred mathematics. No dancing around trying to figure things out, no drooling over this word because of how great a choice it is, none of it. You get an answer and you're done."
Giggles met his response. "Then I promise to send my treasurer and all of his accountants to you."
The thought of that pedantic, skeletal old man in his dark brown robes in front of his desk, drywashing his hands as he hectored in a dry monotone on income and expenses while his army of dull coin counters shuffled by with their virtually illegible books made Rhys shudder. "I'd rather do all that math by myself!"
A melodramatic sigh failed to conceal Lena's amusement. "Yes, I would much rather fight that dragon on my own again than have to hear that dreadful voice of his for hours on end."
Rhys sat up straight, alarmed. "What do you mean, 'again?'"
"Back in Landen, I fought the dragon that attacked the castle," Lena explained before a rueful smile crossed her lips. "I may be stretching the point on the word 'fight,' though. The shots from my needler missed his eyes, and when I tried to escape, he knocked me out."
Even as he opened his mouth to ask if she was alright, Lena reached out and patted his cheek affectionately. "Before you start worrying, I'm fine. That was about when Lyle found me. If you can even call it that."
A wry smile tugged at the corner of his lips at her exasperated tone. "What happened?"
"After I recovered consciousness, Lyle was there. He had set up camp and was playing innocent. I tricked him into revealing he was a Layan. Before I could get my needler, he threw me back with one of those spells of his. He thought he'd won, but then I got him to lower his guard and turned the tables on him." Lena sighed. "Of course, he then turned the tables on me, little by little. Every one of his suggestions was so small, so reasonable, such a tiny little extra step that before I knew it, I was his guest in Shusoran."
It was the first time they had discussed her arrival to Aquatica. Curiosity filled him. "How did you trick him? And how did you get into Shusoran?"
"Well, um," Lena said, her voice distinctly embarrassed as her cheeks turned visibly red even in the moonlight. "I acted like a helpless female besotted by the heroic male."
He laughed at that. "That cannot have possibly worked!"
Those big brown eyes suddenly became even larger, though how, Rhys wasn't sure. Lena's expression was simply radiant. "Surely a man as chivalrous and brave as you can find it in you to offer me some water."
Rhys had handed over his canteen before he even realized what she had done. His accusing look was met by laughter before Lena sipped some water. There had been something in those eyes of hers that made denying her request almost impossible, something he suspected had not been present when she used the same tactic on Lyle. He wasn't sure what it was, but...
A tilt of her head allowed the moonlight to illuminate her face. Rhys froze, his thoughts interrupted. He had never really noticed before how full Lena's lips were. Her bottom lip had a single freckle, the only one on her face. He felt himself drawn forward by that freckle and those lips, an alluring sight that demanded one thing from him.
A change in the wind brought the smell of burning from their campsite. Lena's eyes widened. "Oh, no. The food!"
Lyle's wail brought the Princess of Satera to her feet quickly. "I completely forgot about it! Oh, why did the three of them have to wander off?"
Lena kissed his cheek lightly, something she had gotten into the habit of at the end of each of their conversations, before she scrambled down the dune toward the campsite. Rhys pursed his lips and returned his gaze to the sky. She was just his childhood friend... wasn't she?