Orakio squinted into the sunlight and smiled his satisfaction. The desert remnant set aside for the original creatures of Mota was a dangerous place, but all signs indicated he would safely reach shelter before full light.

 Motavia, he corrected himself. Motavia, way of the dunes.

"Hey, Orakio! Where are you now? Daydreaming about the Old Master's daughter?"

Orakio grunted and turned around to face his companion. "Reenol, do you mind? We have to reach the Southern Mountains before full light. Unless, of course, you look forward to facing sandworms."

The blonde-haired man snorted. "Always the practical one, aren't you? Alright, I'll wait til we're back at the Ladea Tower and in front of Sumire before I tease you."

"You're too kind, Reenol," Orakio muttered.

"Don't I know it. Well, let's go."

Reenol donned the hood of his cloak, gripped his bag of supplies, and resumed the walk toward the cool shade of the mountains. Orakio followed suit, and entertained his private musings for a bit. The Ladea Tower was an old fortress built almost four hundred years ago, during the fearsome Dragoon Wars. The Dragoons, as they had called themselves, had been a formidable band of nobles and warriors who had inspired many in Algo to rebel against the Tyrant, Stileco, whose legions had subjugated Algo for over a decade. They had begun their rebellion on Palma, but Stileco had chased them off. They had fled to Motavia and Dezolis, where they had built their two fortresses of Naval and Ikuto. On Motavia, they had constructed the Ladea Tower. At the time, it had been built near an important sea trade route, and the Dragoons had clung to it tenaciously. At the conclusion of the wars, it had been abandoned.

And abandoned was exactly what the Dalvel'im was looking for, he thought.

The Dalvel'im had been among the Dragoons' fiercest soldiers. They drew their name from the special swords they utilized: the shadowsaber. A powerful weapon tainted by Darkness originally used by Stileco against them, the Dragoons had scavenged them from the dead creatures left behind on the battlefield. And 'creatures' was the only way to describe them. While Orakio had never seen one himself, the Old Master had told many stories, most of them from his own experiences.

What are they, you ask? They are abominations. They are Tiya'im, the lost ones. The weak-minded and black-hearted who dare to touch a shadowsaber are forever robbed of their souls. They become gray-skinned monsters in human form, desiring only to kill. They are a horrible danger, and the training you receive today is to make sure that you do not succumb to its foul touch. And if one of you does, then the training your fellows receive will help them to free you from such a horrible existence.

Thinking of the Old Master's admonition brought Orakio to another train of thought: Sumire. The daughter of the formidable Old Master was a shy one. She kept to herself, and resisted all attempts to be courted. At seventeen, Orakio had felt the hot fires of lust, but always had known who would be his true love. I've known ever since I arrived at this water-forsaken place that I wouldn't leave it without Sumire.

His trick memory fastened onto their first meeting as children. His father, the Director of Algo Kirzan Sa Riik, had taken his eight-year-old twin sons to Motavia to be trained in his best friend's care. They had arrived at the Paseo Spaceport unannounced, and when they had disembarked from the shuttle, Orakio had seen a tall brown-haired man with a little girl at his side. The tall man had a grin on his face that aped the one on his father's. The two adults had bounded forward and embraced. "Kir! It's great to see you!" the man had exclaimed.

"Nor! I thought you wouldn't have gotten my message!"

"No worries, old friend. So, these are your two whelps?"

"Indeed. Orakio, Rulakir, I want you to meet Norat Ginaz. He's the sword master I told you about."

Orakio observed while Rulakir had greeted him. He was older than Kirzan, perhaps middle-aged. He carried himself with the poise of a man used to his freedom and to his power. In other words, as a man who depended on himself, not Mother Brain. Ginaz had noted Orakio's sharp gaze. "So, Kir, I see you started the deep training on them."

Kirzan had nodded. "Yes, since they were infants. Their minds are as sharp as any of your young trainees. Perhaps even sharper. They show the family talent as well."

"I see. How long are they in my care, Kir? The usual?"

"Yes, the usual. In nine years, they'll return to me on Palma. I will visit them every so often. Are you still using Termi as your supply town?"

"Yes. Come. We can talk on the way to the inn."

Rulakir followed their father, listening to their conversation. Orakio, however, focused on Ginaz's daughter. She was a slender child, with golden eyes, and long brown hair. The proud lines of her face contrasted sharply with her shy eyes and demeanor. He would have started a conversation with her had he not heard a key word. Mother Brain.

"How do you manage to stay hidden from Mother Brain? I find it a wonder that her Agency hasn't marched into the desert to wipe your order out."

Ginaz spat, as if the words were distasteful to him. "Never underestimate what petty men will do when greed fills their hearts. The desert is full of rare plants and metals that we pay as bribes to certain officials. As far as Mother Brain is concerned, no one lives in our desert but the people of Termi."

"That explains a lot of things. By the way, Giren might be more sympathetic to you then you think."

"Mother Brain's governor? Bah! I'll believe it when I see it."

They reached the inn at that point and Ginaz had ordered for them. They had eaten a delicious meal, and while the men resumed talking, Sumire slipped outside. Orakio followed her out and watched her for a while. He had then approached Sumire to try to chat, but had been shocked at her reply. "Leave me alone. I don't want you near me."

His youthful pride kicked in at such an insulting brush-off. "Tough! You heard your dad! I'm going to be around you for the next nine years!"

"You're too used to soft living! You won't last against any of Papa's other trainees!" she shot back.

"I'll show you. I'll be the best of the best!" he said hotly.

"And Paseo is made of mud! You're just a whiney rich boy!"


Orakio and Sumire ceased squabbling, and saw the Old Master right behind them. "Sumire, I'm disappointed. You should know better. You should not judge others until you know them. Even then, your judgment could be wrong."

Before Orakio could begin to grin triumphantly, Ginaz turned to face the young boy. "And as for you, boasting is a sign of the unimportant trying to impress the important. Are you unimportant, boy?"

Before his rage could unleash itself, Orakio realized that he was being provoked. He thinks he can mess with me just cuz I'm a kid. I'll show him.

"Nice try, Master Ginaz. But I learned about those word tricks from my dad. You won't get me to show the real me that easily."

Instead of the outrage he had expected, Orakio was chagrined to see the man begin to grin. "Good. I think I might have some fun training you, whelp."

Looking Ginaz straight in the eye despite his small size, Orakio flatly stated, "My name is Orakio. Not 'whelp' or anything else. Are we clear?"

Surprise crossed the Old Master's face, but was replaced by delight. "By the Life Guardian! You're Kirzan's son, right enough! Let's go. I promise that your training will be the most demanding of all."

The Old Master kept his word. Orakio had been placed in an advanced class. While too young to wield the swords and sabers that were the main weapon of the Dalvel'im, he was instructed in the kindjal and slip-tip. Martial arts, poetry, literature…the training was all designed to create warriors, not soldiers.

He had met the Old Master's nephew there. Three years older, the green-haired Hawat Ginaz tended to lord it over Orakio. This increased his resentment of the Ginaz family. Finally, Orakio challenged Hawat to a duel using blunted kindjals. Master Ginaz agreed to allow it, and Orakio had beaten the older boy. The other trainees had been impressed to see him defeat one of their best, and stopped treating Orakio and Rulakir with scorn.

Even Sumire had been impressed with him. "You did well against my cousin. Maybe there's more to you than I thought."

Orakio had ignored her, and instead had continued practicing the seven attitudes to attack from eight sides. She had watched his technique for a bit, and then said, "You're doing it wrong. Like this."

Orakio had been about to explode, but he allowed her to demonstrate the way it was to be done. When his body persisted in making errors, she continued to help. Slowly, as the weeks became months, Orakio began to realize he was falling for her. While she did not mind helping him or, on occasion, talking to him, she very much minded anything even hinting at courtship.

"I don't care," she had told him when they were thirteen. "I'm not interested in marriage. Men are all disloyal and useless. I'm not going to hurt myself with a relationship with some man who's only going to 'love' me til I get pregnant, and then leave me for some other girl."

Even back then, the other trainees had noticed the attention Sumire gave him. They all ragged him about it, but he didn't let it affect him. Reenol especially enjoyed ribbing him about it. "So when's the wedding Orakio? Are you going name the first kid after me?"

"Reenol, you'll be lucky if you ever get married period."

Hawat had unexpectedly leapt to his defense. "Let him be. Sumire is only helping him to make up for her rudeness toward him. No more. Now, do you lizards have sufficient tasks, or should I find new ones for you?"

Orakio snapped out of his reverie when he heard the distinctive grinding noise that meant only one thing: sandworm.

"Reenol! A worm! Run!" he bellowed.

They both sprinted toward the rocks that meant safety. The sandworms of Mota were among the most dangerous creatures in Algo. Though blind and deaf, they had excellent senses of touch and smell. The only way to escape them was to head toward the nearest lake or rock as fast as you could. Full-grown worms hated water, but not so for their infants. These pursued you into water, but avoided rock.

All this and more passed through Orakio's mind as he dashed for sanctuary. He saw Reenol leap onto a ledge. He heard the worm begin to speed up. He felt his body protest the demands he placed on it. With a final sprint, he made it to the rocks and climbed as quickly as he could. He turned his head to see the worm twist away to hunt new prey. He looked up to see Reenol scrutinizing him. His face held resignation as he helped Orakio up. "Go ahead. Say it."

Orakio forced himself to innocence to conceal the absolute terror he had felt to see the worm so close to getting him. "Say what?"

"You know. I was irresponsible. I should have paid more attention for worm sign. Whatever."

"I was only going to ask if you were okay," Orakio said mildly.

"I'm just peachy," he replied sourly. "Come on. We both know it's a waste of water to bake in this sun while there's shade nearby."

Orakio observed his training partner. He was agitated and embarrassed. Calmly, Orakio followed him into the cave and prepared his sleep mat. Even as Orakio began to consciously slow down his metabolism, Reenol interrupted him. "Orakio? I have a question."

Sighing despondently, Orakio turned to glare at him. "Can't you see I'm trying to get some sleep? You might be able to trudge across the desert all night, run from sandworms, evade Scorpirus attacks, and dodge Fanbites with no sleep, but not me."

A wry grin twisted Reenol's mouth. "I just wanted to ask if you wanted to be invited to my wedding."

"I thought we agreed you would never get married to anything but a goddess of compassion and tolerance."

"Who do ya think I've been with every time we have to go get supplies?" he asked.

Orakio's jaw dropped in astonishment. "I'll be damned. You're getting married? When?"

Reenol nodded. "This spring. I wasn't planning on it, but she and I are in love. She told me a few nights ago that she was pregnant with our child. Can't let the kid grow up without a dad, can I?"

Orakio heard the barely concealed bitterness. Many of Ginaz's trainees were orphans: Reenol's mother had died from an overdose of andris when he was five, and his father had left his mother when he had been born. The Old Master had rescued the boy from the gangs of Paseo, and ever since, Reenol had been trying to repay that debt.

"I'm sure you'll make a great dad, Reenol…as long as you don't teach the kid to be as annoying as you."

"Thanks loads, pal. What would I do without you?" Reenol muttered sarcastically.

Orakio grinned. "Let's see…you would get eaten by sandworms, poisoned by Scorpirus, gored by Fanbites-"

"Okay, okay! I'm sorry I asked! Crap…"

"Relax, Reenol. You know you're like another brother to me."

He snorted. "I can never keep up with you. Why you allowed the Old Master to choose me as you partner, I'll never know."

Orakio adopted a long-suffering expression. "Would you rather have suffered under Rulakir's less than pleasant methods?"

"Now that you mention it, no, not really."

"Neither did I. Now, get some sleep."

Reenol listened as his partner fell into a deep sleep, but he did not emulate Orakio's example. Instead, he began to think. What can I offer her? I know I'm not worthy of her, not by a long shot. What can I do to prove to her she wasn't wrong to love me? Resolve hardened in his chest, his insecurities not satisfied by her assertions of love. I'll steal a shadowsaber. I'll control it and not be corrupted. That will show her that I am worth it. I'll prove myself to you, Diane.

With this last thought, he allowed sleep to claim him.

***                                            ***                                            ***                                           ***   

At one of the ancient lookout posts high up on the Ladea Tower late at night, two boys who were supposed to be asleep were keeping watch on the desert. One was blue-haired and blue-eyed, while his companion was had the characteristic brown hair and eyes of desert-born Palmans.

"Do you see them yet?" Rolf Atheling asked anxiously.

"Not yet. Relax, Rolf. They'll be here. My cousin isn't gonna get eaten by a worm."

Rolf turned to regard the brown-haired Deikon Sa Riik. Though a year younger than him, he acted older than his years. The brown eyes betrayed supreme self-confidence, which Rolf had originally mistaken as conceit. After a number of fistfights, the Old Master had ordered them to partner up. Since then, they had actually become good friends.

"Why are you so anxious? Is it about that girl you met? What was her name…Shir?"

Rolf winced. We're good friends when he doesn't read me like a book, he thought sullenly.

"You're face tells me it is about her. You know it won't last. Especially since it's long distance," Deikon reminded him.

"Let a guy have his fantasies, Deikon."

"Hormones warping your brain, Rolf. I'm just reminding you how it will probably end."

"Have you ever been in love?" Rolf asked.

"None of your business," Deikon responded in an icy voice.

Unsuccessful in taking the attack to enemy territory, Rolf resigned himself to a lecture by the mentally mature boy. Instead, Deikon pointed at the desert and said, "There they come. Let's go to bed. There are only a few hours til dawn, and you know how much of a stickler the Old Master is about training."

Moving quickly but silently, they made their way to their bunks. However, outside the door, they were startled by a female voice. "And what do we have here? Two desert rats out of bed. What to do with them?"

Whirling, they stared at the Old Master's daughter. Rolf looked panicked, while Deikon mimicked the pose as he concealed the fast thinking he was doing. "And what were you doing up there anyway?" Sumire demanded in that always-soft voice of hers.

In just the right tone of surprise, resignation, and indignation, Deikon replied, "We were keeping watch on the desert to see if Orakio was coming. We saw him-"

"Orakio's back?" Deikon's trained ears detected the concealed pleasure in her voice when she said Orakio's name.  Breathing easier, he said, "Yes, we saw him. He should make it here in another hour or so."

"Alright, go to bed, you two. I'll forgive you this time, but next time, I won't be so nice."

In the same silent way of a Locust stalking prey, Sumire left the boys and headed toward the lookout. Deikon and Rolf both entered their quarters and flopped onto their beds. "That was close," Rolf muttered. "But I thought it was Rualkir's turn to be night proctor…"

Deikon had been assessing their encounter with Sumire at high speed. His quick brain had been well trained by his father, who, along with his mother and aunt, had died in the shuttle incident almost four years ago. That incident had caused Mother Brain to forbid all space travel, the same way she had forbidden all sea travel fifty-something years ago after a similar incident. Finally, Deikon answered Rolf's unspoken question. "Yes, it was Rulakir's turn tonight. The question you did not verbalize was why she was out there in the first place, correct?"

"Yeah. So, any thoughts from the human Mother Brain?" Rolf asked irreverently.

"A few. First off, she caught us by accident. She had been headed toward the lookout we were on."

"Why? Her quarters have a lookout. Why would she go across most of the Tower to get to our lookout?" Rolf asked curiously.

"Her lookout does not overlook the approach to Termi," Deikon answered.

"So? What's so special about that patch of desert?"

"Didn't you hear her voice? Her tonalities and verbal shadings?" Deikon questioned.

"You know I don't have the ear for it like you and Orakio do," Rolf muttered.

"Very well. She was worried about Orakio and wanted to see him arrive."

"What?! Why would she do that?" Rolf sputtered in surprise.

"Easy enough. She is probably in love with my cousin."

Before Rolf could recover from his dumbfounded stupor and continue to ask questions, Deikon fell asleep.

***                                            ***                                            ***                                           ***   

"No!" Orakio shouted as he woke up from the throes of nightmare. Sighing away his adrenaline rush, he turned to study his quarters. They were comforting, familiar, and spartan. He did not decorate his room with useless memorabilia. Everything inside had a purpose aside from ornamentation. When he finally found his center of peace, he closed his eyes and reviewed his dream. No doubt about it, he thought, fear returning. It's the same one.

This particular nightmare had haunted him ever since he could remember. It always was the same. A nightmare figure, something with a mockery of a human face, faced a black-haired man with an ebon sword. Each time, he caught a feeling that this could be him. If it was a possible future, Orakio wanted no part of it. The man that could be him always died at the hands of the beast, overwhelmed by dark energy.

"Tell me, do you always scream when you dream? If you do, you really ought to stop visiting the women of Termi. Your memory seems to keep your encounters with them on display for you."

Orakio opened his eyes and glared at Sumire. She gave him a half-smile. "My father sent me to tell you that you can sleep a while longer if you wish. He thanks you for the supplies."

Tossing aside his blanket, Orakio got up and practiced the seven attitudes against attack from eight sides. He did this intentionally, reminding Sumire he was not someone to be trifled with. With a speed that surprised him, Sumire suddenly attacked him. He blocked and attempted a crosskick. She lithely dodged and kicked his knee out from under him. Realizing how exposed he was, he swiped her legs out from under her and toppled her. Unfortunately, she toppled on top of him.

"Are we through with the exercises?" he muttered crossly.

A dimpled smile met his irritated glare. "I suppose so. You're still much too slow, but then again, you haven't slept much."

"I apologize for my failings, O Great One, but would you kindly get off of me? The last thing I need is to have Reenol come in and see us like this."

She giggled and then adopted the mask of the serious daughter of the Swordmaster. "Better?"

"Much. Come on. I'm starved, and a few perolymates aren't what I'd call filling."

As he exited his quarters, he picked up his sword. "You don't need that yet," Sumire reminded him. "Sword training isn't until after lunch."

"Doesn't hurt me to take it with me," he replied, shrugging.

She frowned, but made no other comment. Together, they left his quarters and began to head for the kitchen. Orakio stopped in his tracks, though. "Did you hear something?" he asked Sumire.

She frowned, and shook her head. She was going to ask him what he heard, when he gestured her to silence. She strained her ears, but heard nothing.  She was about to demand Orakio tell her what he was hearing, when he started running. She began to follow, then realized where he was going: the Grand Convocation Chamber. The place where the shadowsabers were kept. The sole place in the Tower where guards were stationed. And she finally heard the mental scream. Her blood freezing in her veins, Sumire ran after Orakio.

***                                            ***                                            ***                                           ***  

Orakio raced up the last stairs into the massive chamber. He ignored the beauty of the place and looked around for the source of the scream he had heard. Finally, he saw the two bodies of the guards assigned to protect the shadowsabers…and the evil glow coming from nearby. He neared the guards, and saw they were both not dead. Only unconscious. Then he regarded the gray glow and froze, horrified.

Sumire arrived and saw where Orakio was. Approaching, she gasped. "Oh, no…by the Life Guardian, no!"

Reenol was twisting, screaming wordlessly, writhing in agony. His flesh was adopting a gray tinge, and his eyes were beginning to become pure white. In his hand, the architect of this change, was a shadowsaber. Reenol turned sightless eyes on Orakio and managed to scream, "Orakio, help me!"

Orakio began to approach, but Sumire held him back. "Let go, damn you! He needs help!" Orakio bellowed.

"You can't help him, Orakio," she said desperately. " 'All whom touch the cursed light shall be taken by Darkness'. We have to run and get help!"

Before Orakio could respond, the glow magnified to a blinding light, then ceased. Standing in Reenol's place was a demon, gray-skinned, eyes without pupils or iris, all white. It was garbed in the traditional armor of the Dalvel'im, and had no trace of Reenol's humanity. Orakio's expression became grim. "No, you go get help. You know what your father said. If we both left, it would kill the guards and escape."

Even as she opened her mouth to protest, Orakio kissed her quickly. "For good luck," he told her. "I'm too fond of you to let anything happen to you. Now, go!"

Watching long enough to make sure she obeyed, he returned his attention to the Tiya'im. "Alright, you. Let's dance," he said even as he drew his sword from its scabbard. The creature raised its weapon to an en guard position. Unexpectedly, it slashed the air and Orakio was knocked off his feet.

What the hell? Those damned swords pack a wallop. Thank the stars I went to sleep in my armor, or I'd be the blue plate special.

Quickly, Orakio picked himself up and threw the tatters of his cloak aside. He charged the creature before it had the chance to recover from it's attack. Even as he engaged it in swordplay, he noted the differences in its style from Reenol's. He doesn't guard the left as well as he used to! he thought elatedly.

Even as he tried to take advantage of this, Orakio was caught off guard by the quick parry and slash the monster performed. Even as he was forced to the defensive, Orakio realized he had been played for the fool.

 That thing can read minds!

Caught in despair, he tried a basic triple stab. It parried each strike and mimicked him, launching the attack back at him. Orakio kicked out and tripped it. He tried to behead it, but it moved too fast and evaded the strike.

It's only toying with me!!

The fury this elicited gave Orakio new energy to resume the offensive. Attack, attack, attack! Each strike drove the creature farther back, and Orakio felt a thrill of excitement run in his veins. With one last overhead slash, Orakio tried to kill the beast. It again proved too fast and blocked Orakio's blade, which shattered in two.

Leaping back, Orakio dodged each of Reenol's new hits. Forced to dodge, he did his best to make himself a difficult target for the monster's attack. Even as he did, he looked around for the guards' swords. Surely, they must have had them--

Abruptly, he saw the two sabers the guards had dropped. Moving quickly, he back flipped with perfect accuracy and grabbed them both. He resumed his deadly dance against his opponent, blocking with one blade as he attacked with the other.

I can't keep this up for long, he thought. He was pushing himself beyond his limits to keep up with Reenol, and was growing tired. And that damned creature is going to notice!!

And notice he did. The Tiya'im stopped moving, and before Orakio could take advantage of this pause, he pointed the shadowsaber at him. A trio of blue bursts appeared, and Orakio barely dodged the. Even so, one of his swords was struck by the blue blast, and froze into a chunk of ice. Throwing it at Reenol, Orakio was chagrined to see him break in with a negligent slash.

Well, only one gambit left.

Calmly, Orakio stood absolutely still. He watched as Reenol dropped his guard and approached him. The thing that had once been his training partner stared at him, as if seeing him as someone familiar. Orakio dropped his weapon, watched as Reenol continued to stare at him. For an instant, his old friend reappeared, but too soon, the merciless killing machine returned and stabbed Orakio. He barely managed to slide the left, but the creature still cut him up.

It stood over him now, gloating, preparing for the final blow. It was raising its sword over its head, and that was when Orakio chose to strike. Moving with all the speed he could, he drew his poisoned slip-tip and threw it into the monster's throat. Orakio limped away as Reenol grabbed his throat, choking.

Finally, it dropped onto the floor, dead of the poison on his weapon. Still limping, he toed the corpse over to see the monster that had taken the place of his friend, his face screwed up into pure anger and hatred. Orakio pulled his slip-tip out of the creature's throat, remembering one of the Old Master's admonitions. Killing with the point lacks artistry, but don't let that hold your hand when the opening presents itself.

I certainly didn't, Orakio thought as he descended into total darkness.

***                                            ***                                            ***                                           ***

He awakened in his own quarters, with Sumire, Deikon, Rulakir, Rolf, Hawat and the Old Master himself looking over him. Weakly, Orakio pushed himself up, wincing at the pain in his side. "What happened?"

"You killed the Tiya'im before it could escape. We arrived in time to see you collapse in front of us. That was a week ago," the Old Master said.

"Feels like I've been asleep twice that long," he muttered, and then winced.

"That would mean that the herbs have stopped affecting the wound. There was a lot of poison in that blade and it's a wonder you survived," Sumire explained. "Would you like me to change the bandages, or will you do it yourself?"

Orakio gave her a bleary glare. "Only an idiot would change his own bandages."

"Ah, brother," Rulakir said. "Some would say that only an idiot would fight a Tiya'im one on one, alone."

"That's big idiot, thank you," Orakio replied.

"I'm sure. Let's go, boys. You are still in training, and he needs some rest," the Old Master ordered. As they walked out, he turned to regard his daughter. "Coming?"

"Not yet, Papa. I'll be with you in a moment."

This did not suit well with the Old Master, but he did not let it show. He calmly walked out and left the two alone. Orakio did not look at her, instead staring at the wall, while she seemed to use her eyes to dissect his face. After an interminable silence, she asked, "Why did you kiss me? And don't say it was for good luck."

Uncomfortable, Orakio decided to tell her only a partial truth. "Truth is, I don't know why I did. It felt like the right thing to do at the time."

"You're not telling me the whole truth," she flared, her words accusatory.

Orakio's anger burned whatever self-preservation he had. "Fine. I did it because I felt I might die there. I didn't want to end life without letting you know, somehow, the way I loved you, what was in my heart ever since we were children. I didn't want to go to a world without a perfect memory of you to guide me. I kissed you because I love you!"

Before he could stop her, she kissed him. It was a soft kiss, full of love for him. Stunned, he watched her. She gazed back at him. "I love you as well. I never thought I would, but I do."

Without thinking ahead, Orakio asked the words he had wanted to say for so long. "Sumire, will you marry me?"

"Yes, Orakio. I'd be proud to be your wife," she said, and kissed him again.