"...seventy-three...seventy-four...seventy-five... do you really intend to go all the way to two hundred?"
"Yes. I'm still missing the 'endurance' part of accuracy, penetration, and endurance."
"What does that mean?"
Laya looked at Nial out of the corner of her eyes. She deliberately raised her bow above her head even as she made the world become one. "Archery focuses on accuracy, penetration, and endurance. Accuracy is how well one can hit the target, penetration is the power to pierce the target, and endurance is how long one can maintain accuracy and penetration."
As she brought her weapon down, she pushed against the bow and simultaneously drew on the string. Her self and the target were united. The arrow was slightly below her cheekbone as she drew the string back to its full draw. The arrow, her self, released, and time stopped. She knew she had hit the target; the past and the future were joined at the same point.
The arrow hit the circular target with a thump, an unnecessary confirmation of what she had already known would happen. They were on Mystoke's archery range, away from the Castle of Silence. The range was fairly typical: a long courtyard enclosed by high wooden walls, its grass covered by fresh snow.
There was no one here on this freezing cold day apart from herself and Nial. As Laya had been born in an even harsher climate than Frigidia's and had spent her entire life in this world of ice, she was accustomed to the chill. Landen's prince, however, was stomping back and forth to stay warm. He had stubbornly refused every time she had suggested he retreat to the warmth of the inn while she practiced, so in the end, she had told him to stand there and count.
She wasn't sure what she thought about this descendant of Orakio. It bothered her that in the long journey from Aridia to Mystoke, he had never smiled. On the other hand, he had been kind while she grieved for her sister. He had not offered trite words of consolation nor had he attempted to deny her pain. He had simply held her while she mourned.
"You probably need to work on the accuracy part, too. You haven't hit the center of the target at all."
The slightest of frowns formed on her face before she erased the expression. She was Laya. She should elegantly ignore his comment and let her actions prove how wrong he was, just like her sister would have, but...
"My accuracy is perfect. Every arrow has gone exactly where I wanted it to go."
If her tone was a little huffy, it was his fault. His skeptical expression contributed to her irritation as she drew an arrow and set it without the ritual preparation. "But you haven't hit the center once! How is that—"
The thump of an arrow hitting dead center interrupted him. Laya silently glared at him, daring him to comment. His breath caught before he cast his eyes downward; she let out a sigh. White vapor formed in front of her. "I wasn't aiming for the center. There are only twenty-five arrows left, so if you look at the shape the arrows make, you should recognize what I was doing."
Nial looked down the range at the target. Laya watched his shoulders tense when realization finally hit him. "You were drawing Laya's sigil... with arrows?"
She nodded once before she returned her attention to the target one hundred meters away. Arrows with their red fletchings outlined the Laya's glyph, for the most part. She only needed to complete the two lower curves and she would finish her first hundred arrows with her sister's bow.
No...it's my bow now.
Laya's Bow was unlike any other. It was an ancient recurve bow made from an unknown material that time itself seemed to have passed by. The weapon had been brought by Ladali and shone as pure a white as the day it was created. She had seen her sister use the bow to parry physical attacks without it getting so much as a scratch, but no Laya knew what mystic secrets the weapon contained.
Nial was stunned. People always were when she did things like this. "My sister once said that it takes ten thousand hours of dedicated, escalated practice to master a skill. Four hours a day every day means it takes about seven years to master something."
Laya looked down at her bow. "When your master is Laya, and your ideal is your elder sister, you throw yourself into that practice. You spend four hours a day practicing archery, and then four hours practicing magic, and then four hours memorizing lore. You set your goals even higher than the tremendous ones your master has set for you. Even though it was impossible, and I knew it was impossible, I did all that to try to reach up to my ideal."
Why did I say all that?
"Your ideal?" Nial's voice betrayed his curiosity. "Your sister is your ideal?"
She looked at him directly. "Of course. My sister was the sort of prodigy born only once every thousand years. She could do anything, and even though I can't, she still loved me unconditionally."
Laya's throat tightened a bit as she thought of her sister, but she managed to restrain her tears. Fortunately, Nial's eyes were still focused on the target she had filled with her arrows. Whether he intended it or not, it made her like him more. From her cradle, she had received compliments about how beautiful she was. A man who did not engage in counterfeit flattery to win her favor was a good person.
"Your ideal is a goddess...I guess that's just the difference of what a demigoddess aspires to and what a mortal can aspire to..."
What a mortal can aspire to...? "What is your ideal?"
Nial closed his eyes. "Chivalry, integrity, dedication, and always doing the right thing, these are the essentials of being a true knight. That's my ideal."
"Really? Interesting. You're that type of guy," she murmured softly as she launched another arrow into the target.
"Did you say something?"
"I wonder," she replied calmly as another arrow flew across the range and into the target.
"That's ambiguous," Nial said very dryly.
"Perhaps," Laya said as she ostentatiously stopped her practice to inspect her bow and once again look at Nial obliquely. "You stopped counting."
"Ah, right. Um, seventy-six and seventy-seven."
"You forgot the arrow I launched when you doubted me."
Nial looked down the range at the single arrow in the dead center of the target. "You're absolutely right. Sorry. Seventy-eight."
Laya accepted the apology, both for his forgetfulness and his doubting the skill her sister had trained.
Sister, it is time for you to know the truth. Though Orakio and I have fought for many years, we finally realize that we have been deceived...
"Is it alright if I travel with you a little while longer? I have a lot of things to think about."
Another arrow flew from her bow before Nial could answer. As Laya watched it traverse the distance, she suddenly noticed the tiny flashes of light that glittered in the air. While she had been practicing, a swarm of crystals had formed in the air.
"Diamond dust!" Snow crunched underfoot as she ran forward in delight. Tiny diamonds flashed as the air currents made the motes dance. A festival of wind and light enveloped her. No matter how quickly she spun to catch the evanescent gems, new glimmers replaced the old as nature created a winter wonderland. While she played in the diamond dust, Laya saw something unexpected.
He really has a very nice smile.