Lena stalked down the hall, Mieu in her wake. She cared nothing for the intricate mosaics, masterful paintings, or geometric reliefs that decorated Cille's castle. Layan soldiers would turn their hostile gazes on her as she swept by, but the Orakian princess did not even dignify them with a return glare. She was certain that if she did, someone would end up with a broken nose, and it would not be her.
Why would Rhys settle for second best?
That... that... bitch. How dare she? Second best? Second best? Lena's vocabulary was too limited to come up with a vulgarity suitable for that Layan chit. She should have sent her ladies in waiting to eavesdrop on the soldiers and pick up true gutter words. At least then she'd be able to express her vitriol correctly.
She was the heir to half a world! Lena's blood was just as royal, if not more so, than hers, the Layan princess of a petty kingdom! Settle for second best? At least she still had her memories! At least she was not a tool for someone else in this twisted, tangled love triangle game!
Bitterness filled the quiet laugh that emerged from her lips. At the very least, her pride refused to allow her to demote herself to the level of tool. She had consciously chosen to join the hurtful game because to remain silent was just too much.
The entire journey from Shusoran to Aridia and back had been spent in the delicate, difficult dance of courtship. Lena had striven to entwine herself so firmly in Rhys' thoughts that he would have no room for Maia. She thought she had seen seedlings of success, the way he instantly warmed to her presence, the way he sought her out, the way he looked at her... and looked at her. Lena had pretended not to notice, but the attention was flattering... if embarrassing.
The recalcitrance of King Ayn had seemed the barrier that would break Rhys from his infatuation of Maia, but Lyle had stepped in. Clever Lyle, always ready and able to wear the garb of the trickster. His solution was so clever, so astute and to the point. An engagement challenge where Rhys could ask a boon and King Ayn would have to grant it.
Even now, she had to respect Lyle's adroitness. True to character, the way he phrased his suggestion had led expectations in one direction while the trickster created another way for all involved. Everyone had expected Rhys to ask for Maia as his bride. That he had not was due to King Ayn's manipulation of Lena.
Frankly, things had gone as well as could be expected. Rhys had staggered out of the throne room with Lyle's support, Cille's court had dissolved into whispers and Maia had glared at her with profound dislike. The important thing, however, was that Rhys had not declared for either of them. Stalemate was the best immediate result.
In a way, she had been glad to be manipulated. The finality of the circumstances had forced her to be honest and had lent her the words she needed to express what she felt. To her own self, at least, she had been true.
Why would Rhys settle for second best?
The gall that Layan chit possessed! Maia had wounded her to the quick with a mere seven words. Lena dearly wished she could have retaliated, but the skewering statement had left her immobilized long enough for Maia to retreat. Deprived the target of her rage, she had tried to vent her frustration in training, but it had only taken two hard lumps for her to realize her mindset was unsuitable for such exercise.
Lena admitted it to herself, if no one else: she was jealous. Her resentment had not faded just because her rival was no longer on the scene. No, it had merely gone underground, out of sight but not out of mind, gaining strength in the part of her that whispered doubt and stewed in negativity. She did like that part of herself. She did not like the insecurities that were nurtured there and infected the rest of her outlook on life, but as much as she strove to silence those anxieties, that nagging voice in her head persisted.
Yes, she was jealous. Jealous of the beautiful rival who had magically washed ashore in Landen, who had turned her world upside-down, who had disrupted her sense of how things were supposed to be. Every time Lena saw Maia, in the flesh or in her mind's eye, she could only feel wronged.
So long as she was being honest, she slightly resented Rhys as well. How could he have been so dense as to miss her feelings for so long? How could he have broken their engagement for a girl who did not have a single memory in her head? Without memories, how could Maia be more than an idea? Why was he chasing an idea when there was a real woman who loved him?
An angry shake of her head banished that nagging voice. For now. Her eyes raked the castle in all its alien splendor. Under other circumstances, she might have admired the foreign beauty and wondered at whether some subtle elements could be applied to the castle of Satera. Presently, it only served to enhance her estrangement from the brighter side of her nature and deepen her depression.
In her more charitable moments, which were fewer the longer she was in Cille, Lena understood it was not anyone's fault. She had learned in Shusoran that Maia had vanished along the shore on the day of a tremendous storm. From there, Maia would have had to survive drifting across the sea, wash ashore on Aquatica's mainland, avoid any human contact until the cave to Landen, fall asleep by the entrance, traverse the labyrinthine passages without food, come out the other end, and then somehow fall into the sea yet again to wash ashore yet again. It was too improbable to be possible with memories, let alone the helpless amnesiac that had been taken in like a lost puppy.
Maia had been a tool and still was. For now, she was King Ayn's tool to hurt Rhys, just as Lena was the King's tool to prevent an unwanted union between Orakians and Layans. But who had taken Maia from Aquatica to Landen and set everything in motion? Such acts smacked of divine intervention, but which deity had done the deed? Orakio or Laya? And why had they three been the chosen victims?
Deception and treachery. The bitter contradictions of a love triangle. What is it for?
"You look like a dozen Giants decided to use you to play Break the Pot, Prince."
Her head snapped up. Rhys was here. He had avoided Lena and Maia as assiduously as a thief hid from the law. She had refused to seek him out; she had done her part, it was now his burden to decide his bride. Lena did not know if Maia had been as judicious, but for some strange reason, she suspected Lyle would have turned the Layan princess away if she had not. For all his tricks, she believed Lyle was the kind of man who preferred to play fair.
Butterflies fluttered in her stomach as she took him in. His eyes were red and weighed down by dark bags, his skin possessed by a grim pallor that matched that of Wren by his side. Rhys' expression was one of uncertainty. His face exuded pain. Even now, with his haggard appearance and those doubts in her mind, her heart soared at the sight of him.
"I feel worse than I look, Mieu," came the reply, his eyes on Lena.
Laughter as real as any Orakian's emerged from the redheaded cyborg's lips. "Is His Gracelessness in the same condition as you?"
A wan smile emerged. "Last I saw him, his head was in his wash basin and he was praying for death. Laya had not obliged. He seemed about ready to ask Orakio to fulfill his wish on the theory that they'd both smite him for blasphemy."
"How very practical," Mieu said, too reasonably. "You have something important to discuss, so I'll keep watch over here."
With that, Mieu turned on her heels and walked in the direction they had just come from. They stared at each other awkwardly, blue eyes looking into brown, accompanied only by Rhys' silent Wren. The silence dragged on, each mute moment another leaden burden on her heart. Trepidation filled her as awful realization set in. He picked Maia, he had to have picked her, why else is he here, why else isn't he saying something?
Rhys began to speak. "I asked my boon from King Ayn—Lena, where are you going?"
She had turned away from him the moment he had said that awful word. So he picked Maia? Then let him be happy with an idea instead of a real person.
She was not going to stay here for an instant longer. She had been publicly shamed by the man she loved in the stronghold of the ancient enemies of her people. Her humiliation would be the stuff of stories for centuries. She would probably be cast as the villainess for standing in the way of love. Her heart ached so that she worried it might physically break.
"Lena, stop, listen to me—"
Lyle owed her for putting her into this mess. He would take her home immediately. If she had to drag him out of his room by his ponytail, she would do so, his hangover be damned. He would escort her home—
"Listen to me, damn you!"
A strong grip latched onto her wrist. She violently tugged, but Rhys' hand stayed firm.
"Let me go," she said quietly. If she spoke any louder, her emotions would pour out, and she refused to break down in front of him. She would take her broken heart and the tatters of her pride elsewhere before she would allow herself that luxury.
"Listen to me!" Rhys insisted.
"I don't want to listen. I don't want to hear you picked her over me," she said. Lena began to pull at her arm, but still, she could not get away. Hysteria began to unravel her self-control. "Let me go, let me go, let me go!"
"I did not ask for Maia to be my wife!" Rhys shouted. "I asked that King Ayn make peace with Agoe!"
She froze. He had not...? The nagging voice quickly strangled the faint hope that had been born. "That doesn't mean you didn't pick her over me."
"I broke the engagement with Maia," he said. Pain was heavy in his voice. "I just left the private audience chamber. She's with her father."
Slowly, she turned toward him. Not all of the distress in his face came from illness. When it mattered, men never knew how to deal with a woman's broken heart, so they internalized that misery and made it a part of themselves, a self-punishment for what they had done. The hysteria began to bleed away.
"A wise man once said that if you can't decide by duty, and if you can't decide by love, then you should decide by the one you like more." Sincere blue eyes looked into hers. "I love you both, and I'm bound by honor to you both. But..."
Rhys struggled internally to verbalize his thoughts. "With Maia, I always felt like she was a fragile piece of glass. I always have to be at my best with her. With you, it's different. I feel like I can be myself with you. I feel calmer and happier with you. If I had to share someone's company for the rest of my life, I couldn't think of a better person than you."
She began to break down. Not from sorrow. Happiness. Great shuddering gasps shook her body as she covered her face.
"Lena? I'm sorry, I didn't mean to make you cr—."
Lena blindly rushed him and hugged him tight. Rhys reeked of alcohol, a stench that offended her nose and made her want to back away, but she didn't care. She held on tighter as she sobbed and Rhys embraced her. He finally said the words she had longed to hear.
"I love you, Lena."