From the ramparts of the castle, it was easy to see the city, her whitewashed buildings roofed with clay tiles warmed by the sun. Pale cobblestone wove haphazardly through the city in a confusing array of roads, side streets and alleys, with marketplaces, parks, and plazas wherever there was space. To the west, the long narrow bay glistened in the sun as the overhanging limestone cliffs sheltered the harbor, a vision of haunting beauty in the mist-filled morning.
The breeze kissed Maia's cheek as it gently teased her hair. Brick bathed in the light of the sun warmed her fingers. In front of the castle, dozens of beautiful fountains gurgled a familiar tinkle. Birds sang their timeless melodies.
This was home.
Her hands curled into fists as the breeze continued to caress her. Her eyes stared into the cliff on the other side of the harbor.
She wished it felt like home.
It would have felt better if she did not feel so alienated. She had accepted that she would never recover her memories. She had come to terms with her lost past. Her intention had been to create a new future, hand in hand with Rhys. They had walked before the gathered nobility of Landen, had stood before King Saiki. Rhys had begun to recite the vow to take her as his wife. Everything had been perfect, until the future she had been about to embark on had shattered like the glass dome over the Black Throne.
Maia fingered her choker with its massive ruby, a gift from Rhys. In a way, she had been raised by Orakians. She realized that during her time in Landen's court, some remnant of her past had subconsciously resisted their attitude of fear and loathing, but it had certainly colored her perceptions once she had arrived in Cille. Her arrival by abduction to a city of snow and ice had not helped. To discover she was a Layan, sworn enemy of her fiancée, had struck her between the eyes, had shocked and dismayed her.
The people of Cille had greeted her return with joy, had taken for granted that their Layan princess was the same as she had been before. Their faces had looked upon her with love and relief. It had taken her time to believe them sincere. She had been suspicious of everyone, certain it was all a ploy for some inexplicable purpose, but it was simply impossible for an entire kingdom of people to fake such sincerity. She only had to look at the court of Landen for reference.
More than just that had rooted her feet and prevented her from engaging in escape attempts. The land of Cille called to her. Her eyes, her ears, her nose, every organ that experienced the world wordlessly told her that all the sights, sounds, and smells of this Layan country were familiar, things she should know. They sang to her memories, tried to draw them out from the shadow of oblivion where they lingered and she chased them like the last scrap of food during a famine.
But just like anyone on the verge of remembering, the thoughts slipped through her fingers into the darkness of the mind.
She had stood before a beautiful mosaic once, a piece that had drawn her in like a moth to flame. The hundreds of small colored stones created a truly epic scene that had mesmerized her. A great blue sphere hung in the dark sky as a hero in white flew through the skies on a giant winged cat toward a castle in the sky. The workmanship was superb, so lifelike that one would almost expect the hero to leap from the wall and fly away on his impossible pet.
For hours, she had stood before the mosaic as the thread of memory entwined itself imperceptibly around her. She had stared hard, desperately trying to follow the sense of familiarity and the draw of her emotions to her past. But every time she reached for the remembrances, they slipped through her fingers. She eventually gave up and turned away.
As her lonely pursuit of self continued to fail, she began to make overtures to the man who called himself her father. There was some evidence of it, a few paintings here and there of King Ayn with two blue-haired women, one recognizable as herself. She listened to him speak, of stories of her childhood, of her family, of things they had shared and things she had enjoyed. She felt herself act in a way that felt right, but she could not explain why. Worse, the anecdotes were interesting, but felt like they were about a total stranger. They were about her, yet she did not feel it was her. The contradiction might drive her mad.
Maia had known from the start that Rhys would come for her. It was the type of man he was. Well aware of how deep hatred ran between the followers of Laya and the followers of Orakio, she began to prepare her people for the inevitable. She spoke to them of how well she had been treated, how honorable the Orakians had acted toward her. Obviously, she glossed over the slights of nobility, but she was certain the aristocrats of Cille were just as bad, if not worse.
Her words had caused an uproar, that was for certain. Even as they slowly starved, people debated whether she was insane, bewitched, or both. Still, she spoke on, determined to convince them of the truth of her words. The love the people of Cille bore for her competed with their hatred for their ancient foes. Maia was uncertain how much progress she had made in convincing them, but the Cille were definitely shaken.
She had made no progress at all with her father. King Ayn had stood resolute in his opposition to everything Orakian, especially her fiancée. Maia had begun to resent him for it. She had the proof of her eyes and was already contracted in marriage, with or without his permission. Still, as the days passed, she continued to press him. While she had no memory of the gruff Layan ruler, he was probably her father, and had definitely been kind to her. If her words could head off a potential confrontation between King Ayn and Rhys, it was worth the effort.
The arrival of her betrothed had been portended by many great signs, or so she felt. The end of the unnatural winter would have been the greatest one, if not for the appearance of a mysterious giant blue orb in the night sky. She had wasted no time in whispering in various ears that Rhys was coming and had redoubled her efforts with her father. In one way, she had succeeded; her father had brought as many monsters as he could on short notice into the castle.
When Lyle had proposed an engagement challenge, she had been wary, but hopeful. Rhys would win and Layans and Orakians would discover peace through their marriage and they could be happy.
She had never anticipated that her father would create a rival for her right in front of her.
"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!"
The words kept replaying in her memory. Outrage was just the mildest way to describe the effrontery of Satera's princess. Rhys was her fiancée, not Lena's! Her father's subsequent words had made it even worse.
"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."
Why? Why would her father say such a thing? It didn't make sense! The worst of it was when Rhys had not made the obvious choice and declared for her. Instead, he had staggered out, stricken. Lyle had put his arm around Rhys' shoulders and helped him leave. The entire affair made the entire court dissolve into whispers.
Maia turned from her observation of her home, resolute. The whole incident was intolerable, but she would handle it with class. She would speak to Lena and put an end to this farce.
Quick, decisive strides took her into the castle to where she had heard Lena had gone ever since the debacle in the throne room. The sati was a comfortable garment around her as she walked toward the castle's female training room. It still surprised her how natural it felt to walk around in it. The relaxed fit certainly explained why she disliked Landenian bodices and skirts.
The stale stench of old sweat assaulted her nose long before she actually entered the room. Unlike the Orakians, Layan women fought in the armies on equal footing with the men. There were always far more male soldiers than female, but modesty demanded segregation. The sexes fought in single gender regiments and trained in single gender camps.
Humidity slammed into her body as the pungent odors that had soaked into the room over the decades made her gag. Free-standing humanoid targets stood on one side of the wall, stout targets for arrows and slicers. On the other were more complex dummies with long sturdy poles set at different heights. When someone rotated the wheel set a little away from the dummy, a mechanism activated and spun the poles at different heights and speeds. To add to its complexity, the poles' velocity changed depending on how fast the wheel was spun. The goal of that device was to teach evasion, when to strike, and prevent soldiers from falling into bad habits.
Usually, the room was filled with Layan warrior women, but they refused to be in the room with an Orakian. Only two women were inside. One was the redhead in the indecent outfit that had killed a Clops singlehandedly; she worked the wheel as the short brunette trained.
Maia watched Lena dodge the poles with ease. Satera's princess wore green pants and a white strip of thick cloth wrapped tightly from her midriff all the way all to her large breasts. The winding fabric flattened her bosom and obviously made it easier to move. Lena wore neither boots nor shirt, and held a pair of daggers in her hands.
Watching the short princess practice made Maia uneasy. It was obvious from the deadly strikes she made that Lena was a competent knife fighter. If the Orakian girl had owned anything like Rhys' height and strength...
Let's get this over with.
Maia approached calmly, her anger kept under tight control. "You are remarkably skillful, Your Grace."
Lena stiffened before she leaped back from the poles. The brown-haired girl did not look at her as she took several deep breaths. Finally, her voice normal, Lena said, "You didn't think a warlord's daughter just sat around arranging flowers all day, did you?"
It was obvious the Sateran princess knew why Maia had paid her a visit, so there was no need to continue the pleasantries. "I want you to withdraw your declaration and leave."
The reply was instantaneous. "No."
"As you well know, I am his betrothed," Maia said coolly.
"I was engaged to him before you appeared," Lena replied. "As you well know, things can change when you least expect."
"Surely, Your Grace," Maia countered. "You can agree that my betrothal with Rhys is based out of mutual love, unlike yours was."
Lena's shoulders stiffened, but she still refused to face her. "When I was a child, I once took good care of a wounded pup I found. I became very fond of the pup because I was the one who healed it. I'm certain the pup became fond of me as well, as it was my pet for many years."
Anger filled Maia's breast at the sheer number of insults Lena had thrown her way. She bit off her next words. "Your Grace, I am certain you would agree that my union with Rhys would be the best for both of our peoples."
Still, Lena did not deign to look at her. She sheathed her daggers and crossed her arms. "Landen would not agree. Rhys' mother is governing his homeland so poorly that there may be another war, resulting in the deaths of many of the people he was born to rule."
Maia clenched her fists. Her father's condition made it much more difficult. When she had reproached him for it, he had countered her in a way she had not been able to argue with. He had said, "Did you not see the joy our people greeted you with upon your return? Would you ask them to lose you again? To an Orakian invader, no less, as if you were a mere prize to be carried off with the rest of the plunder?"
No need for her to know that. "But Your Grace, surely you can agree that your stance has caused Rhys some upset."
"Rhys is as bold as a Punisher," Lena replied, using a Landenian idiom that dated back to Orakio's time as a compliment for great courage and determination, "but that's not the only thing a king needs to be a good ruler. He must learn to make hard decisions, even if it's between two women he loves."
A touch of pettiness colored her next reply. "If Rhys really loved you, why did he bother to come to my rescue?"
Lena turned her head and looked at Maia. "If he only loved you, why didn't he refuse my declaration of love on the spot?"
Maia raked Lena up and down with an inquisitive glare that not even a blind man could have missed. "Why would Rhys settle for second best?"
With that, she turned on her heel and stalked out. Behind her, she heard steel sink into wood. At least Lena understood her place. Now all Maia had to do was wait for Rhys to realize the same.