"You know, this probably isn't a good ide—"
"Shut up and drink, Lyle."
Rhys grimly reached for the spigot on the small keg Lyle had brought up. He already knew this was a bad idea. He had known that from the moment he had asked Lyle to bring enough alcohol to drown a Chirper in. Rhys consoled himself that at least he'd get some bloody sleep this way.
Opaque black ale flowed into his white ceramic tankard as the strong aroma wafted up to his nose. Ales back home in Landen were more of a cloudy mahogany than this dark fluid, another difference between this world and his own. At least the smell was familiar.
Lyle looked concerned. Rhys scowled at him. "Drink."
"Alright. Should we toast something?"
A sour twist to his mouth, Rhys raised his tankard like it was an executioner's axe. "To being between the sword and the wall," he said. With that, he took a deep draught of the sharp, bitter ale, the taste of alcohol strong in the unaged drink.
It had all seemed so simple in the beginning. A Layan monster had kidnapped his wife-to-be before they could exchange vows. All he needed to do was rescue her. Wasn't that how it always worked in the stories?
Another gulp brought more of the strong ale into his body. Real life was far more complicated than any story, that was for sure. His father had tossed him into the dungeons, his ex-fiancée and childhood friend (and best to veer away from that line of thought!) had broken him out. He'd met a cyborg so close to being alive as made no difference, had discovered not one but two worlds lost to his people for centuries, had ended an endless winter, had brought back the moons banished by his ancestor the great Orakio a thousand years ago, with help from Lyle and Lena (veer away, veer away!), had stormed a Layan castle with a bare handful of loyal followers, bested the ruler of the castle in a one-on-one duel...
Tankard emptied, Rhys set it down on the wooden table of Lyle's quarters. The alcohol began its insidious work as his stomach began to warm and his head began to feel lighter. His Layan counterpart was drinking far too slowly and earned himself a gimlet glare for tardiness. "Drink faster. I'm already done with mine."
"I want to savor the flavor," Lyle replied with that smirk of his.
"You just can't drink as much as I can and don't want to admit it," Rhys guessed. His gibe was rewarded with a frown.
"Don't be silly. I can drink you under the table."
"So start drinking," Rhys replied as he held his tankard under the valve again. "You're already a full pint behind. Unless you're ready to admit a little girl can drink more than you."
"That's absurd. I just-"
"Lyla sounds like a pretty name for a baby girl," Rhys taunted. "With pink ribbons in her hair and a giant pink bow."
Glowering, Lyle took the tankard to his lips. Rhys watched the convulsive moments of the Layan prince's throat as he swallowed the bitter drink. When Lyle set the tankard down again, Rhys looked over the vessel's rim to make sure it was empty. Faking a draught was a trick that surely must have been ancient in Orakio's era, let alone today.
Miffed was the best word to describe Lyle's expression. By way of apology, Rhys refilled his friend's tankard. That done, they drank in silence for some time, their pace thoughtful as more ale entered their bodies. Rhys did his best to avoid thinking of anything in particular, though the more he drank, the more thoughts wandered into his skull. He did his best to worry about things he should worry about because they were the things he should worry about.
Rhys frowned, vaguely confused at his thought. He shook his head and with a huge effort, concentrated on his worries. His father was gravely ill, bedridden, and the kingdom was in danger. That's what everyone had told him, so it had to be true. But he couldn't just go home and fix things, he couldn't. Because...
With another great exertion, Rhys looked around the room. It was luxurious, as befitted a room for a guest of the King of Cille. It was also nicer than his, but that was no surprise, since he was Orakian. Wren stood by the door, his wild black hair at odds with that stoic pale face of his. The big cyborg was probably calculating exactly how much alcohol they had imbibed and how it was affecting them. Rhys was pretty sure it was his fifth tankard...or was it the sixth? Cille ale was pretty strong. Good thing Wren was here to keep an eye on him. He'd told Wren to ignore any orders he said while drunk, even if he ordered Wren to ignore that he ordered that. Mieu wasn't here, though. Ever since they had arrived in Cille, Rhys had told Mieu to watch Lena's back.
His face felt numb, but he was certain it moved into the scowl he told it to move into. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Lyle blinked. His eyes slowly focused. "Tell ya wut?"
"Tell me Lena loved me. Ya knew and told yer uncle and not me."
"I did!" Lyle protested. "I did, a whole buncha times!"
"Didn't," Rhys responded crankily. "Not a single word, not a one."
"Ah left ya two alone much as I could!" Lyle protested. "She kept burnin' the food 'cause of ya. Wasn't eatin' burned vittles for my health, was eatin' 'em so ya'd realize it."
"That's not saying," Rhys said firmly. At least he thought he said it firmly.
"Wut was I supposed to say? 'Thanks fer savin' Aquatica, y'all can go home now, by the way, Lena loves you?' After ya knew I was a Layan? Nuthin' suspicious 'bout that at all! Ya said ya wanted to go to Cille. Well we went to Cille, 'cause I promised I'd do anything fer ya, so I did. So there."
"Coulda said sumthin'," Rhys muttered.
Lyle looked distinctly uncomfortable. "Thas not the sorta thing a man gets involved in. Who ya love is yer problem, and I'll sit and drink with ya 'cause it's tough and I'm yer friend, but I ain't gettin' involved."
"Ya told yer uncle."
"'Cause I was tellin' him everything ya did and everything I saw." Lyle stared down into the bottom of his tankard and did not look at him. "Didn't expect him to do such a mean thing."
"Mean's pushin' a little girl in mud. This is cruel, really cruel."
Choose between Lena and Maia. Choose between Landen and Cille. How was he supposed to do that? "Between the sword and the wall," Rhys said as he stared at his empty tankard. Before he could refill it, Lyle spoke.
"It's yer fault, ya know."
"Huh?" Anger began to surge in his veins as he understood what Lyle said. "I didn't ask for this!"
"Yeah you did."
"How did I ask for this?" Rhys slammed his fist. The table shook violently beneath the strong blow. It didn't hurt, so he banged his hand against the offending furniture several more times. "I'm between the sword and wall, loving two women at the same time!"
"And that's why ya asked for it," Lyle said, green eyes slightly out of focus. "Ya missed the obvious with Lena, and ya fell in love with mystery woman Maia. And then ya started gettin' a clue with Lena but were too dense 'bout it, so my uncle made ya pick 'cause he knew."
"I didn't ask for this," Rhys whispered.
"Ya did by being dense. Ya should have seen from the start Lena loved ya. If ya had, ya wouldn't be in this mess. Why did you realize it, anyway?"
"I...don't know. I just..."
"Ya just what?"
"I don't know. I feel calmer and happier and stuff with Lena around. I like talking with her and touching her. We've been friends since we were kids, so I never noticed her as...as..."
"As a woman, so ya didn't think about why ya mighta felt all that stuff," Lyle said with a nod that should have sent his head smashing into the table.
"I didn't ask to live a love of three."
"Except now ya are. Ya realized Lena's a woman, and ya got feelings fer her cuz she makes ya feel good, and ya came out here 'cause ya fell in love with Maia 'cause she was mysterious and needy and ya were the big hero who rescued her so she's yer reward."
That one hurt. He protested, "It's not like that!"
"Mebbe," Lyle said as he frowned at the bottom of his empty tankard and put the vessel beneath the valve. It took him another moment to remember his other hand and turn on the spigot. "'Cept I'm a knight too, and it's really appealin' to be the big protector and get the girl in the end, isn't it? That's why those stories are so popular." Lyle took a big swallow of ale before he resumed talking. "Ya know how in the stories and stuff the prince and the maiden fall in love in an hour and have a happily ever after?"
Rhys nodded at Lyle's words.
"A thorny question arises: did the prince really fall in love with the maiden?"
"It wasn't like that!"
Lyle grunted. "If you say so. I dun see how else it could be. Maia still doesn't remember anything, so aren't ya just in love with yer idea of Maia and not Maia?"
All of these questions and statements were things Rhys had felt but never verbalized, even to himself. Even intoxicated, each query came as slap. "You comfort me with thorns!"
The Layan prince bared his teeth at Rhys in an angry rictus. "I comfort ya as best I can. Ya got yerself into this, and ya dragged Lena and Maia into it too. Now ya have their honor and yers at stake, and no matter what ya do, there ain't gonna be a perfect happy ending. People are gonna be hurt and shamed no matter what."
"That doesn't help," Rhys wailed. "I don't know what I want to do or what I should do!"
"It's yer wants that got ya into this," Lyle rebuked him again. "Nobles arrange marriages 'cause they're what's best for the family. We're responsible to our ancestors and our children, and marriage is a way to secure the past and future. Ya had a good marriage arranged with Lena, ya know. Love's supposed ta be a product of our marriages, not a cause, and ya would have come out ahead than most 'cause yours would have had love pretty quick."
Another scowl crossed the Layan prince's face. "Ya threw that out 'cause what? Freedom? To marry for love? To do whatever ya wanted to do? Yer not a peasant. Ya got a duty to follow. Ya did it in Aridia and Agoe. I saw ya do it! Why didn't ya do it from the start?"
"I have a duty to myself," Rhys began weakly.
"DON'T BE STUPID!" Lyle roared angrily. Rhys flinched as the Layan prince slammed his tankard into the table. "'Duty to myself?' What is that shit? Ya think I want to be the King of Shusoran? I'd rather be the meanest beggar in the shittiest hovel in the world than the bloody King of Shusoran! But it's my damned duty, so I'll be the damned King of Shusoran and may Laya burn my eyes if I don't!"
More ale went down Lyle's throat before he thrust his vessel beneath the spigot and refilled it. "Ya didn't think of yer duty and now ya have this mess. Ya have a duty to Lena, a duty to Maia, and a duty to Landen and Agoe, and yer gonna have to figure out how yer gonna balance those, 'cause something's gonna give somewhere, especially since the whole world knows about it now."
"I don't want to talk about this anymore." Rhys filled his tankard with ale and downed it in a trice.
"Ya may not want to talk about it, but yer gonna have to think about it. Ya can't keep them waiting for an answer. Ya think it's cruel that you have to choose? Isn't being this dense just as cruel? How much crueler is it to be stuck waiting for an answer, not sure if you're the rejected one?"
"How am I supposed to know? I can't just say I love one and not the other!"
"Like I keep sayin', it's not just about love anymore! Ya can't just decide just 'cause ya want yer reward from Maia or 'cause Lena has great tits!"
"Don't talk about her like that!" Rhys snapped.
Silence filled the room as they scowled at each other. After a while, Lyle silently reached over and took Rhys' empty tankard and refilled it before he filled up his own. The Layan prince stared down into his ale as Rhys struggled to find some semblance in his own incoherent thoughts. The best he could come up with was, "I just wish I knew what I should do!"
"Ya really want my advice?"
"I'm ready to ask Wren for advice!"
Lyle took a slow draught before he spoke again. "If ya can't figure out where yer duty is, then pick the one ya like the most. And I'm not talking about love. Loving someone is a lot easier than liking someone. You can fall in and out of love at the drop of a hat. Love can start at first sight and end the first time ya have a fight.
"But liking someone... that's a whole 'nother thing. You have to like each other. And I mean really, really like each other. 'cause let's face it, you're gonna be stuck with the lucky girl for the rest of yer life. Yer gonna see her every day, and yer gonna have to have kids together, and she's gonna have to be able to forgive ya for gettin' her into this mess.
"So think about it. Are ya gonna be able to handle her for the rest of yer life, with the ups and downs, and everything? What if she gets really sick and ya have to take care of her 'cause she won't be able to anything? Would ya be able to take care of her 'cause you like her company more than anybody else's?"
Green eyes squinted at Rhys. "Love may be a good reason to get married, but it's a pretty flimsy foundation, especially for us."
Whatever else Lyle was about to say was lost when the Layan prince's eyes widened and his cheeks suddenly ballooned. One hand on his mouth, Lyle lurched to his feet and staggered to the wash basin. Rhys heard him retch as the vile sound of vomit striking porcelain reached his ears.
He should go and help, but all he really wanted to do was lie down and wish for the room to stop spinning. Duty, Landen, love, like, Maia, Lena, Lena, Maia, what was he going to do? Maia was beautiful, she had such mysterious eyes, but Lena was pretty too, her eyes were big and warm and he just wanted to do anything when she made those eyes at him. So very pretty, glittering like sapphires, dark as pools of fall leaves…he loved them both. How was he supposed to choose? What about his duty? Where did it go? He owed Lena a great debt he could never repay, greater still because of how he had shamed her in the first place, but now he had an obligation to Maia too and how was he supposed to balance the two when they couldn't both be met. Bitter contradictions of a love triangle, what was it for? Lyle said that he should be with the one he liked, but what was like? The one whose company he liked most? That wasn't hard to answer, that was...