Alair resisted the impulse to rip her hair out at the roots. Instead, she rubbed her temples as she tried to contain the anger that throbbed in her skull. It also bought her some time to muster her thoughts and rest her voice before she once again launched into the fray.
Three people were crowded into Lune's office. The place was about as disorganized as could be expected, with everything from weapons to discarded boots scattered about. Lune had never gotten used to the digital nature of Palman society, so he insisted on printing things out and looking them over on paper. He said that it made it easier for him to absorb information, but Alair privately suspected that her elder brother was technologically illiterate. Thinking that at least allowed her some small amusement. It would burn up the second the argument resumed, but it was still a much-needed mental break.
The family reunion had been joyous. Lune had hugged her again and again, the crushing strength in his arms carefully constrained, but rough affection undeniably present. Even as she had attempted to protest the embarrassing display of filial affection, Lune had mumbled thanks to the Great Goddess even as he asked if she was alright and failed to hear her grunted affirmations. It had been a moment of familial bliss. In this strange new world, Alair was all Lune had, and vice versa.
Filial harmony vanished as soon as Alair began to press her elder brother for peace with the Orakians.
"I'll slaughter those mongrels completely! The only peace they'll get from me is the peace of the grave!" Lune had snarled. It had gone on similarly ever since.
Always one to lead from the front, Lune had just returned from a raid. His soldiers, be they Ancients, New Dahlians, Cille, Shusorani, or Elsyians, were consumed with admiration for the great general who was not too great to share their burdens. Lune ate the same food they did, lived the same conditions in the field, and fought with power and courage. Just as important, Lune won the battles he commanded. It was a blood-soaked charisma, but for soldiers, it was an inspiration to fight even harder.
Lune had taken a small group of bodyguards with him, a mixed force composed of the various Layan factions he now governed. They had gone straight to the rebel headquarters in the west. From there, over the protest of his bodyguards, Lune had gone alone. A suicidal act by anyone else, but her brother was not "anyone else." Even in the days against Orakio, such bravura had been typical of him.
Bravura or not, though, the raid had worked. Reports Alair had seen indicated at least half the rebel army had dispersed into the countryside. Even so, her brother had not been happy with the results. In fact, despite her safe return, a dark aura remained wrapped around Lune.
Opposite her, Lune drummed his fingers on his disheveled desk. For all his martial brilliance, he had always worn his emotions on his sleeve; displeasure was an expressive mask on his face that forbade the resumption of the conversation. Not that that ever worked on her.
"We can make peace," Alair said.
"There will be no peace with a lot of barbarians!" Lune snarled.
"They're the same as us!" Alair snapped back.
"They're butchers and simpletons, incapable of even knowing they're worshipping a mere man!"
"Like the Layans are any better!"
"Laya was the manifestation of the divine, so at least they're not idiots!"
"No, the only idiot is the one I'm talking to!"
"Shut your mouth or I'll rip your tongue out of it!"
"I'd like to see you try!"
The two siblings had gotten to their feet before the third exchange of words; the only thing that prevented them from physically brawling was the desk between them, and even that was a minor impediment. Lune was a giant of a man, but her own years of fighting had taught Alair plenty of close combat tricks. Before they could go at each other, a voice intruded.
"My lord, truly, what can be the harm in trying to negotiate with the Orakians?"
Alair glanced at the third participant in these extended arguments. Princess Thea Ra Mira of Shusoran was the leader of the Layan peoples of Cille and Shusoran. She was a pretty little porcelain doll with large, soulful blue eyes; two curled locks of long green hair framed her face. She and her people had suffered many privations at the hands of Siren, Orakio's Military Executor, before they had found sanctuary under Lune's banner. Alair suspected that Siren still being operational was enough for Lune to dismiss any idea of peace out of hand.
Still, her brother's old enemy had inadvertently done Lune a favor. The Cille and Shusorani had proven valuable assets in the fractious give-and-take that governed Layan relations in Elysium: they were loyal to their princess first, and the princess was loyal to Lune for who knew what reason. That she now sided with Alair was a mystery.
Another oddity was the way Lune looked at Thea. A strange mixture of protectiveness and shame filled his eyes as he looked at her now. Finally, he shook his head. "No negotiations."
"We haven't even tried negotiating!" Alair snapped.
"There will be no negotiations!" Lune roared.
"Why not? Why in name of the Great Goddess not?" Alair shouted back.
"Barbarians need to be wiped out! Especially barbaric idiots like that oversized Orakian lout!"
"Oversized Orakian lout?" Alair asked before suspicion flowered in her mind. "About a head shorter than you, good-looking, brown hair, brown eyes, broad shoulders?"
"What?" Lune scowled. "Something like that."
"That's Prince Nial! He's the one who got me out of Divisia's dungeon!"
"Prince...Nial? As in, Prince Nial Sa Riik?"
Alair stared at Thea. How did she...? "Yes, that's the name he gave me," Alair said slowly. "Prince Nial Sa Riik of Landen and Satera."
"But...what is he doing in Elysium?" Thea exclaimed. "He should be in Landen!"
Thoroughly surprised, Alair continued to speak with Thea, her brother forgotten. "You know him?"
"Well, yes. We played together as children a few times. I saw him just before... before..."
Another thing about the pretty little porcelain doll was that she was as fragile as the analogy used to describe her. Thea's health had been wrecked by her time in Siren's dungeons. Aware that something like the remembrance of that time might be enough to set off hyperventilating, and in need of every ally she could get, Alair hastily turned to her brother to divert the conversation. "You see? You can negotiate with the Orakians, especially if it's this one!"
Her brother ignored her. "Sa Riik? As in, Orakio Sa Riik?"
The quiet question had been directed at Thea. The princess hesitated before she finally said, "Yes. He's Orakio's direct descendant."
"Then I will take great pleasure in personally extinguishing that demon's bloodline."
Alair wisely refrained from contradicting Lune as he carefully went around the princess and out of his office. With a sigh, she sat down. Her eyes pinned Thea in her seat. "Why was he so nice to you?"
Those big eyes blinked twice, startled. "N-nice? W-what do you mea—"
"Don't! Just don't! I know Lune very well. Every time you argued with him, he didn't yell at you. He just refused. That's not usual Lune behavior, to say nothing of the weird way he's been looking at you."
Pink flooded Thea's cheeks. Even that just made her look cuter. "I'm not aware of any strange looks."
Alair crossed her arms and waited. Thea plucked at her skirt. Unlike Dahlians, who wore utilitarian jumpsuits, the princess wore stylish outfits of Elysian Layan design. She had a preference for light blues, and her blue one-piece miniskirt dress went well with her embroidered pants. The fine stitches for both were red, with a design around her chest that made it look even better. Alair could probably pull off a similar outfit, but as there wasn't anyone she was interested in attracting... "Well?"
"While you were being held by the Orakians, Lord Lune was very distraught," Thea said as she folded her hands in her lap without looking at Alair. "I simply, um, comforted him."
A short silence ensued. Alair had to ask the question. "And how, exactly, did you 'comfort' him?"
Red suffused Thea's cheeks to the point where the princess did not need to answer. Alair sighed. "What in the world possessed you to do that?"
"Lord Lune has very deep wounds in his heart," Thea said gently. "When he thought you lost, he was wild with grief. It was something he needed."
"Uh-huh," Alair said. "Then I guess the reason he looks so embarrassed is because he took your virginity."
Just how red could the princess turn? Well, it was still a big surprise. So far as Alair knew, Lune had not taken a lover since the death of his wife during the Devastation War. Since it was Thea's first time he had taken in a frenzy of grief it was—wait a minute.
"Why?" Alair demanded flatly. "I know how much you lot value virginity. Without that, you can't become a wife, can you? And don't give me that 'need' crap."
The red in Thea's cheeks was the red of anger. "What if it was? I wanted to do this for him."
Considering what the ruling class was like in this time, Alair found herself skeptical, at best. "Again, why? Do you actually love him or do you want to use him for your own power?"
For just the briefest moment, Alair could have sworn that Thea was about launch a fireball at her head.
"When I was Siren's prisoner, I lost all hope," Thea said, her voice stronger than Alair had ever heard it. "There was no chance of escape or of rescue. I knew I would die there. So I made a contract with Laya. If she would save me from that hell, I would make Lune my husband."
"What? Why would you do that?"
A bitter smile appeared on that pretty face. "You see, not only had I lost all hope, I had lost my faith. I set a test before my own goddess. 'If you're so great, grant me a miracle.' I even offered impossible terms. I knew even then it was a taunt, but I was so miserable, I didn't care."
Alair had never gotten used to the way that Layans worshipped her one-time leader, neither back during the Devastation War nor now in this current era. Laya had definitely been holy, a manifestation of the Great Goddess, but she wasn't a goddess.
Unbidden, her mind's eye envisioned Laya, with her long mane of golden hair and her exotic dark eyes that were gates to an indigo otherworld. She had been so beautiful that even a thousand years later, her face appeared in Layan art, her tikal, the blood-red ruby that marked her special relationship with the Great Goddess, ever-present on her forehead.
More than her physical appeal was her aura. Her petite frame had owned a commanding demeanor that made even a giant like Lune obey. On the field of battle, she had inspired her soldiers to acts of heroism unseen in thousands of years. She wasn't a goddess, but it was understandable why they would mistake her for one. Alair forced herself to pay attention as Thea continued speaking.
"When Ryan rescued me and helped me bring my people here, I knew that I would have to spend the rest of my life trying to do the impossible. I had no idea how to do it. I even thought that if I died, it might make it easier to reach Lune. The great hero was dead, after all, so should I not look for him in the land of the dead? After I led my people to safety, I decided. When we got to Landen, I thought we could beg King Rhys for sanctuary, since he had been a friend of my father's, but my people refused to consent. They were all so afraid of Orakians that I could not persuade them. I went along with their pleas and we pushed on.
"Then I arrived in Elysium and discovered Lune was here. I could not believe it, but it seemed a divine sign from Laya. Surely, if Lune was still alive, it meant she had forgiven me. Surely, it must mean that. Not for a moment did I doubt that it was the true Lune, the hero of legend, no matter what Ryan and his friends said."
Thea looked down at her lap. "I think, perhaps, my father anticipated something like this. He was always a cunning man, so when he struck a deal with Ryan to save me, his exact words were 'So long as I am the ruler of Shusoran, the warriors of Cille and Shusoran will fight alongside you.' My father's death meant that I ruled Shusoran, even if I could not be crowned in our destroyed homeland. That was all I needed to break that agreement and swear myself and my people to Lune."
Oath-breaking was a very serious violation of the code of honor in the current era, Alair knew that much. Whatever her brave words, it was obvious that using the letter of her father's agreement against Ryan still plagued Thea's conscience. Alair blinked as Thea looked up, a strong, resolute expression on her face.
"Lune treated my people and myself gently. He gave us lands, allowed us to keep our titles, put us under the blanket of his protection. Though I never asked for it, he gave me power below only yours and his."
"Below mine? I'm just a tribune, I don't have any—"
"That's not true at all," Thea said. "People obey you, whatever your formal title. Your influence is above even his field commanders."
She had never spoken so much with Thea. Alair had always been a bit dismissive towards the Layan princess, but it was obvious her attitude was unjustified. The girl-no, the young woman was strong. She had survived Siren's brutality twice over, and even though her constitution was weak, she still carried on with a will.
I like her. She's a trooper, princess or no.
Thea sighed. "But that's neither here nor there. As I spent more time here, I...watched him. Perhaps his soldiers admire him so that they can't see it, but I saw it. A blight of unhappiness that hovered over him. Beneath the rage and the hatred, there was pain. I didn't know why, so I quietly began to investigate. I found out his wife had died in the Devastation War, and realized that was why. But what could I do to take that pain away? What could I do to heal him?
"Before I realized it, empathy for his pain became love. He can be very savage, I know that very well. But it has never been directed at anyone other than his enemies. I have no illusions about his arrogance, but he is a legend. How could he not be? More than that, though... he is very sincere. I think, beneath the legend, is someone worthy of love." Thea rubbed her stomach. "Yes, I think he is someone worth loving, as difficult as that will be."
Lune had no gift for healing. When the time had come for Alair to learn healing magic, she had done so alongside little Sahana in the clinics of Mystoke, under the careful tutelage of Laya herself. She had seen that gesture enough to know what it meant. "Are you pregnant?"
"My moon's blood has always been as regular as clockwork," the princess said softly. "I am three weeks late. Doctor Micel confirmed it today."
Even with the scars on her body that kept her weak, Thea dared to love someone who justifiably terrified Layan and Orakian alike. Was it faith in Laya that drove her? Was it the love she professed to hold for Lune? Alair didn't know...and didn't care. Within her was Lune's child, boy or girl. Thea held within her womb the first hope for the future Alair's family had had in a thousand years. She had skipped a few steps, but the Layan princess was now family.
"Does Lune know?"
Thea shook her head. "I only just found out today, and I'm... a little afraid he won't welcome his child."
"He will," Alair said reassuringly. She hesitated. "You should probably tell him now. It'll cheer him up."
"Are you going to give up trying to convince him to make peace?" Thea asked.
Alair shook her head. "No. I came of age in a war of world. Your child should grow up in a world of peace."
"I pray for that, every day."
They nodded in perfect accord.