Well-trimmed fingers drummed a steady rhythm on the ornately decorated handrest of the throne. Ayn Le Cille stared into nothingness as his hand typed out its little ditty, his eyes blind to the beautiful mosaics of his throne room and their depiction of daily life in his kingdom. A thousand years ago, his ancestress Aina Le Cille had held the land for the goddess Laya herself. His forefathers had kept the foul followers of the demon Orakio at bay for centuries and had vanquished army after army of abominable cyborgs. He himself had led his warriors, on land and sea, to inflict defeat after defeat on Agoe, and on Shusoran when they became uppity.
Nature had been kind to the capital of Cille. To the west, the long narrow inlet glistened in the sun as the tall limestone cliffs sheltered the beautiful harbor. The city proper was located on a triangular slice of land that was bordered by the innermost extension of the bay on the southwest and flanked by mountains to the east, natural barricades that would thwart even the best Orakian army. As it would have been foolhardy to trust only to the natural defenses of the bay, Laya's people had added sturdy barricades that surrounded the city on land and by the water. The walls were fortified by bastions and towers that increased their defensibility. The gates into the city were protected by looming citadels equipped with solid steel portcullises, arrowslits, and murder holes.
A soldier rushed into the throne room and made a hasty genuflection. "My king, the intruders are almost here!"
How was it possible they could not stop a handful of children?
Armored Fearmoos, poisonous Irisa, all the different monsters from Cille's hordes, and still he was not rid of the Orakian spies that dared to defile his castle. He blamed his idiotic nephew Lyle that they had even managed to gain entry into his fortress. Was the boy touched in the head? What had possessed him to lead the invaders through the secret tunnels and into the citadel?
Uncrowned King of Shusoran or not, Lyle had drastically overstepped the limits of what was proper. In Cille, Ayn reigned supreme, and he would remember the boy's defiance of his edict banning the Orakians from his lands for a very long time. Bringing that filth here was beyond the pale!
"Father, don't you think that perhaps it would be better to—"
"I will not welcome Orakian vermin to my kingdom!"
Gathered nobles murmured as Maia folded her hands in her lap and sighed. His daughter's return should have been a joyous event, but the happiness had not taken long to fade. His people had suffered a mass paroxysm of terror when she had vanished without a trace. Word of her reappearance had uplifted the entire kingdom despite the starvation and cold of an unnatural winter. However, his reunion with his heiress had been an unmitigated mess, his little girl in a frenzy of panic and tears at her "kidnapping," his heart a sinking lump of lead at the fear in her eyes.
Maia's amnesia was the worst of it. Before her inexplicable disappearance, she had been his precious chick, his sweet darling, his precious pearl beyond price. The bond between them had been strong and deep, a mutual familial affection anyone could see. To be treated with suspicion by his beloved only child had wounded him to the quick.
It had taken time to overcome her distrust, time and a reserve of patience the King of Cille had never thought he owned. They had been fearful that Maia would attempt to escape, so guards had stood watch day and night, wary of losing her again. Thanks be to Laya that she had made no attempt to flee. Instead, she had wandered castle and city, her guards and servants in tow, with an intensity that bordered on insanity. Ayn had once seen her stare for hours at a mosaic she had loved before her disappearance, then leave in frustration because while familiar, she had no memories of it.
Slowly, as the days had become weeks, she had sought him out. The pace had been glacial, but flashes of her daughterly devotion had shone through the fog of oblivion for brief moments. Ayn had told stories of her childhood, of her mother, of anything he could think of that had meant something to his child, but despite her keen interest, Maia could remember none of it. The loss of an entire lifetime terrified him more than anything he had ever seen.
Almost as bad was when Maia spoke of her time in another world, that of Landen. She spoke of it to anyone who would listen. She spoke of Orakians who had done her no harm. She spoke of Orakians who had treated her with honor.
Most disturbingly, she spoke of the Orakian prince she had fallen in love with and had been on the verge of marrying. Not just any Orakian prince, but one descended directly from the demon Orakio himself! No matter who tried, Maia would not listen to a single word against the demonspawn. She spoke freely to the people of Cille of the Landenians and this Rhys who was their prince. Ayn had not dared to try to silence her or put her under house arrest for fear that it would set back, if not destroy, the trust he had painstakingly rebuilt.
Her words unsettled the kingdom. Wherever he went, the King of Cille heard murmurs amongst the people. An Orakian prince had been about to marry a Layan princess, a complete outrage! Their beloved princess had lost her memories, surely she had been tricked. But Maia said she truly loved an Orakian, their mortal enemies. Yet they had treated their princess well. The demonspawn prince had even attacked a Dragon Knight unarmed to try to prevent her rescue. Confusion was the order of the day as their love for his daughter competed with their ancient hatred.
Ayn himself was opposed to the match. Orakian filth mixed with the purity of his bloodline? A thousand times no! He might feel some begrudged gratitude that the demonspawn had taken care of his daughter and not taken advantage of her or taken her virtue, but that was where it ended. He would fight with might and main to prevent such a union, no matter how much his daughter urged him to agree.
In the midst of all those troubles came the first of Lyle's reports. Each one of those letters were a treasure trove of valuable information, but Ayn could not divine the boy's intentions. His nephew was a trickster; even if one could outsmart him, Lyle found a way to turn things back to his advantage in the long run. Not that the King of Cille was a slouch when it came to thinking on his feet, but even he was wary of the boy's deviousness. Whatever else, he knew almost everything Lyle did, from the broken marriage covenant to the enamored childhood friend to the details of the demonspawn's fighting style.
The doors to the throne room opened. Ayn reached out and squeezed his daughter's hand. "Not one word," he growled. The King of Cille glared across the room and got his first look at the intruders that had thrown his castle into an uproar.
A redhead armed with wicked claws and gifted with a dancer's frame dashed through on the left flank, her blue eyes intent as they regarded her surroundings, her astonishingly indecent outfit and boots the same color as the throne room's velvet carpet. On the right flank, a wild-haired dark giant in what appeared to be heavy plate armor moved with an ease that belied his size, a bulky weapon that resembled Agoen shots in his hand. It was hard to believe either of them was a cyborg, but Lyle had little reason to lie about that.
A short, pretty brunette in green traveling clothes and a white shawl entered, an Orakian needler in her hands as she surveyed the throne room, her large brown eyes watchful. The childhood friend, Lena by name. Ayn dismissed his nephew with a contemptuous look and focused his glare on the swain who dared seek his daughter.
He was a tall youth with broad shoulders and that arrogant saunter that seemed part of the parcel when it came to swordmasters. Sweat poured from his forehead and matted his dark blue hair. Dark blue eyes were on the alert for attack, his weapon steady. The white armor and cloak were covered in blood, though Ayn did not know how much belonged to the uppity youth. It offended him that the boy came dressed in a color befitting a Layan groom.
The King of Cille stood from his throne and placed himself between his daughter and the intruders. The foolish youth had not had the chance to see her, but he had felt Maia's hand tighten in excitement. There were still gambits to prevent her foolishness. "Who dares invade the castle of Cille?"
The demonspawn looked at him, his eyes hot and sharp. A mask appeared as the boy adopted a persona that the King of Cille could only call regal. "I am Rhys Sa Riik, Prince of Landen, Prince of the Blood, Heir to Orakio's Keep, Knight of the Order of the Lakes, son of His Majesty, King Saiki Sa Riik, third of his name, King of Landen, First Prince of the Blood, Lord of Orakio's Keep, Overlord of the East, Supreme Commander of the Armies, Warlord, Grandmaster of the Orders of the Lakes, of the Mountains, and of the Forest," said the boy, secure in titles and legacy that might be valuable in his fiendish country but meant only abomination to Layans. "Do I speak to King Ayn Le Cille, twelfth of that name?"
"I am the king of this country of Cille!" Ayn snapped. "What business does an Orakian dog have in my domain?"
The mask slipped for a moment before the boy managed to put it back on. "I come to seek a boon of you, one royal to another."
"A boon? Do you think disguising what you will ask improves your chances?" He sneered. "To pester and chase after my daughter Maia so betrays your aggrieved ignorance of your proper place!"
Rage filled the boy's face as he sheathed his sword impossibly fast. Lyle had told him how the demonspawn's fighting style depended on drawing techniques, and that was the first warning. All the better, so far as he was concerned. Once the young idiot attacked, his guards would beat him to a bloody pulp, and his monsters would eat what was left.
Before the hotheaded fool could attack, his childhood friend grabbed his sword arm with both hands and shook her head. The boy seemed to struggle against his rage for a moment before it began to slowly trickle away as self-control began to assert itself. Angered at this interference, the King of Cille opened his mouth to insult the demonspawn again. Lyle spoke first.
"Here now, Your Highness," Lyle said cheerfully. "Surely you can offer better welcome than that. As I told you in the letter I sent you, this man fixed the weather. He is the reason our people have spring and time to plant and grow for next winter."
The nobility of Cille murmured once again. Ayn bared his teeth. "I care not. He is an Orakian, enemy of our people, a fact the Prince of Shusoran would do well not to forget!"
"The Prince of Shusoran has sworn to lay down his life for Prince Rhys and for that of his children in gratitude for the salvation of his people," Lyle said seriously, all of the usual insouciance gone.
Ayn gawked at his nephew as the conversation grew louder. "Are you insane, boy?"
"Gently, Your Highness, gently," Lyle replied softly. "I may not be crowned, but I rule Shusoran."
"I will grant our enemy nothing but the chance to die at the claws of my monsters," Ayn snapped.
The childhood friend had heartened with each word, but her face sank the moment Lyle spoke again. "What of an engagement challenge?" Lyle asked.
"An engagement challenge?"
"Yes, just like the stories. You have said you will not grant my friend Rhys a boon freely, so you should allow him to earn it. If he succeeds at the challenge, he can gain his boon. If he does not, you can set a penalty." Lyle paused before he added, "A challenge a mortal can achieve, if you please, Your Highness, and done quickly. This business has gone on long enough."
An engagement challenge! Of all the insane, asinine ideas-! Then so be it. He knew the demonspawn's techniques, thanks to Lyle. It would be simple to dispatch the fool himself.
"If the Orakian can survive a fight with me, then I will grant his boon," Ayn said coldly. "If he cannot, then his life shall be forfeit."
"I accept the challenge!"
The King of Cille sneered as he strode forward. "Do not think it will be as easy as that. It will not do if your servants interfere for any reason."
"My companions are honorable," came the heated reply. "They will do no such thing."
"So you say. Dryads, Clops, come forward! Deal with them while I vanquish this fool."
Two giants strode forward from beside his throne, their single eye centered in the heavy, cylindrical dome of bone that protected their heads, their bulging muscles as tough as steel. A half-dozen small, lithe humanoid monsters with red hair and green wings flew down from the ceiling to join them.
"Oh, goody, a Clops. Wren, deal with the one by you. This one is mine," the red cyborg said cheerfully, for all the world as if she were about to dance. She shifted from one foot to the other in...anticipation?
"Affirmative," said the black giant.
"I suppose I'll deal with the little ones if you're busy with the big ones," the Orakian girl said, her needler already taking aim.
"That's perfect," said the red cyborg.
Their cavalier attitude offended him. "I'll show you how we handle Orakian spies in my country! Attack!"
At his command, one of the Clops leaped into the air, his fist aimed at the black giant. Marble audibly cracked as the black giant caught the punch without change in stance or expression. The ground shook as the other Clops' attack failed to hit its target and struck the floor. A humanlike bellow magnified a hundred times filled the room as the red cyborg easily cut the monster's arm.
Before him, the Orakian darted forward incredibly fast, ignoring the flitting Dryads. Two of them turned to strike the hotheaded boy's back, but the buzzing sound of needler shots preceded their fall to the floor, neatly pierced through their heads. The remaining Dryads shrieked in outrage before they turned their attention to the sharp-sighted Orakian girl. The powerful roar of a heavy Orakian shot joined the Clops' bellows as the swain came at him.
Prepared by Lyle, the King of Cille suffered small difficulty in blocking the drawing technique with his staff. Ayn shoved his fist toward the demonspawn and opened his hand. "Zan!"
Rather than retreat, the boy shouldered him, forcing them both forward as the razor wind tore through the area where the knave had stood. The assault had unbalanced them both, but whereas Ayn managed to keep to his feet, the young fool rolled away from him. Not one to pass up an opportunity, Ayn raised his hand, gathered the power, and released it. "Zan!"
Rather than run, the youth crouched down as he wrapped his ragged cloak around his head. The violent funnels of wind shredded the cloak to nothing, but there was little other damage. The boy dashed forward, his speed somehow at its maximum without any time to build momentum. The blade was out, not sheathed, but even so, Ayn was almost caught by surprise when the weapon was launched upward in a powerful slash that went from low to high. Even as the King of Cille stepped back and moved his hand for another Zan Technique, the youth grabbed Ayn's fist and twisted, preventing the powerful attack.
With a wordless snarl, the King of Cille brought his staff down, aimed at the boy's head. The sound of metal against metal rang in his ears as Rhys brought his sword around and blocked the strike. A kick from his right leg forced the Orakian to buckle for just a moment, enough time for Ayn to break free and aim another blow at the boy's head. The sword once again blocked him.
Ayn staggered as Rhys put his strength into standing, his left hand on the flat of the blade as he forced his way up. It was clear Lyle had not exaggerated his foe's power. The Orakian wasted no movement as he brought his sword behind his back and brought it down in a powerful blow that Ayn had no choice but to dodge. The blade sank into red velvet for the briefest instant, but before the King of Cille could launch another Technique, Rhys removed his scabbard from his hip and sheathed his sword with the same lightning speed that defined his draw.
Contempt curled his lip; this had been the move that had vanquished his nephew. Ayn strode forward. He would block the sword strike and the follow up blow from the scabbard and then launch a fireball into the demonspawn's chest. That would be the end of the entire affair.
The Orakian knew it too. He waited until the King of Cille was within range. There was no hate in the boy's eyes, only iron determination. The blade left its sheath, faster than sound itself. Ayn blocked the strike and crouched. Even as his body moved downward, he saw what he had blocked. He only had time to recognize that he had not blocked steel before Rhys drew his sword from its scabbard, raised the blade and brought it down on Ayn's shoulder. He roared in agony as his arm popped out of its socket. The King of Cille fell to his knees.
Naked steel hovered over his right shoulder, the intent clear. He gritted his teeth as he clandestinely looked around. Dismay filled him as he realized his Clops and Dryads were dead. He had lost. Though the words tried to choke him, he had to say them. "I yield to you, Rhys! You are mighty indeed. You are truly the strongest Orakian warrior."
"I thank you for your kind words, Your Highness," Rhys said calmly, that blade still ready to come crashing down. Only now did Ayn realize that it was the flat of the sword on his shoulder. The blow that had vanquished him had lacked killing intent.
"Perhaps Lyle, my nephew, was right about you," Ayn said with a sigh. He heard soft footsteps from behind him, Maia for a certainty. He had only moments to strike before it was all for naught. "But you have a choice to make!"
"A choice?" Rhys said, confusion in his voice. "What do you mean a—?"
His hand held his shoulder as Ayn stood, once again between his daughter and the Orakian prince. "Your childhood friend is in love with you," he told the boy bluntly. Rhys staggered, almost as if he had been physically struck. His face paled as he turned to look at the pretty brunette.
All eyes were on Lena. It was obvious she understood this was her last chance. Her eyes also made clear she knew exactly why the King of Cille had given her this opportunity. She closed her eyes as she stilled her trembling before they flashed open again and saw only Rhys. Passion, anguish, determination, all those feelings were on her face and in her voice as she spoke from her heart. "It's true, Rhys. I've loved you ever since I was a child. I helped you this entire journey because I wanted you to be happy, even if it was at my expense. I want to fill up the world with my feelings for you. I love you and only you!"
Realization filled the Orakian prince's face, followed closely by agony. Before anything else could be said, Ayn pounced. "You must now choose between Maia and Lena. Wed Maia and you shall become King of Cille. Marry Lena and you shall be King of Landen. These are your only choices."
Rhys looked shaken. A surreptitious survey revealed that everyone but Lyle and the two cyborgs was stunned. "If you need time to consider your decision, take as much of it as you need," Ayn said mock-solicitously as he walked away to be healed.
No matter what choice the young fool made, Rhys had lost.