Champion And Thief
The town was eerie quiet, as silent and imposing as the ancient castle behind it. It was not abandoned, even a stranger would notice the well-manicured shrubs, the carefully swept streets. Shusoran was magnificent, a lesson in majesty held in stasis, a legacy of the ferocity with which the Layan people had forged their stronghold on what had once been a solely Orakian isle.
Though the town did not often empty itself like this, this forbidding lack of human activity pleased Lyle. Even if the Orakian army of Agoe had come to the gates of Shusoran to witness this sight they would be loath to enter, certain that some sort of witchery must be about in order for so many people to disappear so suddenly. Lyle knew better, and understood the loyalty and discipline that enabled the people of Shusoran to perform so well as a single unit.
But because of that reputation Layans had among Orakians, Lyle had to be impressed by Rhys. Born and bred in a land where Layans were nightmares told to children, Rhys strode into the jaws of Shusoran as though it were a mere cabin in the woods. He glanced around, sure, on wary lookout for signs of an ambush, but that was more a matter of pragmatism than fear. In time the prince would discover that Shusoran was indeed not abandoned, for its people had only shut themselves in their homes, hiding away from the Orakian that had come among them until the palace gave the message that its task was done.
Lyle had given them more than adequate warning, and if not for him, Rhys would have found himself beset by the Shusoran army before even stepping inside, and that would've ended his quest to find Maia right then and there. Instead the citizens of Shusoran watched and waited. Lyle sometimes wondered if he did the right thing in aiding him this much, but he supposed it fair exchange in return for the thawing out of Aquata, freeing this particular sphere of cities and towns from the months of unexpected snow that had engulfed it.
"Maia is nearby," said Rhys.
He spoke with conviction, certain of the knowledge he did not really possess. Lyle did not tell him otherwise--at least not directly.
"Remember," said Lyle, "we were only told that a woman was seen being brought into Shusoran's castle. That doesn't mean that woman was Maia."
"This is a Layan town and no women of Agoe are missing, so what other woman could it be? It had to have been a stranger or people wouldn't have bothered to notice."
Lyle knew the answer, of course, but he said nothing. Rhys was a passionate man, quick-hearted and stubborn, a wondrous combination the less flattering would call "hothead." But aside from that he was a good man. He'd been willing to help Lyle with the weather system even though he really didn't have to. Well, maybe he did since he still needed to cross the ocean to find Maia, but he hadn't known it at the time. Lyle still wondered a bit about what Maia saw in Rhys, especially now as he watched Rhys kick at one of the elaborate Shusoran fountains in an attempt to find a secret passage they'd heard about.
Sure, Rhys was honorable and every bit as intent on finding Maia as he'd been the day Lyle first met him, but the man was also a bigot. Not through any fault of his own, having been raised in a land where Layans no longer existed, but that didn't change the disgust for Laya's people that was a part of his heritage. As Lyle traveled with him he'd often heard the prince curse at the Layans, particularly at their beasts since it had been a dragon that had stolen his bride away from him. Even now he swore at them as he kicked at the fountain.
Lyle had not told him his own heritage, that Lyle was a prince as well; prince of Shusoran, heir to this very city that now contrived to confound him. As prince of such a land, Lyle had regarded Orakians as enemies in much the single-minded way that Rhys regarded Layans, but unlike Rhys, his distrust had not come blindly. Agoe and Shusoran had nominally been at war for centuries. There had always been a reason to keep up the fight, for the two enemies existed on the very same island.
Maia wanted peace between Layans and Orakians. Lyle didn't know how many years that would take to accomplish, but now that he had experienced the Orakian side of things with Rhys, he thought peace worth striving for. Orakians could be decent people, if given half the chance. And besides, with Rhys had he walked comfortably into Agoe, even the castle stronghold of his enemies, to find out that the Orakians of Agoe were nearly beaten witless by the power of Shusoran! It would be easier to offer peace from the stronger side of the battlefield. The Orakians would probably be relieved to accept, assuming they didn't think it was a trick.
Rhys was going to break something, but whether that would be his leg or the fountain Lyle wasn't certain.
"I don't get it," said Rhys. "This has got to be the right fountain. Wren, are you sure there's a passage on the other side?"
"Affirmative," said the cyborg. "There's an air flow coming out from the base of the fountain."
"Then there's got to be a way to move it or open up some kind of entrance. There should be some kind of button here and judging from what we've heard about Shusoran it's got to be something to do with this dragon design. Wren, you give it a push."
Wren sighed, a mechanical sound without breath. "I don't believe that design is a button."
"But we've got to try."
"That's a gilatoad," said Lyle, "that's why pushing on it hasn't been working. This" --he pushed a carving which yielded with a satisfying click-- "is a dragon." He looked at Rhys crossly as the fountain rumbled to one side. "I thought you said your fiancee was kidnapped by a dragon. Don't you remember what one looks like?"
Rhys scowled. "Of course I do. I'll never forget--the wings, the fangs, the crashing of glass all around us. It's a wonder why Maia wasn't squashed by the thing when it landed. But this" --he waved at the fountain-- "is all stylized. How can I tell one monster from another?"
"Maybe if you were more patient."
Those words had crossed Lyle's mind, but Mieu was the one who voiced them. The other of the prince's two cyborgs smiled kindly at Rhys, as admonishing as a well-intentioned mother, if one had a mother who wielded dual claws and a body that consisted of 95% prosthetics.
"Maia's been with this monster for weeks," said Rhys, for a moment looking as though he would snap at her. His shoulders sagged. "I don't know if she's even still alive, but I'll try."
He started down the stairs into the underground passage, but Lyle stopped him.
"Rhys, have you ever wondered why the dragon kidnapped Maia?"
"No." The prince's voice was still curt and he did not turn around. "All I know is that it didn't care whether it ruined what was supposed to be the happiest day of our lives and that the only reason it did so is because we're Orakian. That I suppose is reason enough to kidnap her. What matters now is her safety."
Lyle let him go. Rhys's words had stung, for Lyle was that very dragon, but the pain only for as long as it took him to follow Rhys down the stairs. Perhaps his timing had been poor from Rhys's perspective, but he was certain that in his place, Rhys would have done the same. It hadn't been out of malice that he had disrupted the ceremony, but out of love. He couldn't have allowed the amnesia-stricken Maia marry an Orakian without knowing her own past, that she was princess of a Layan kingdom and about to celebrate a union with one of her ancestral enemies. And when he bore her away he did not hide her in some dungeon laden with enemies, but took her to see her family where her memory could be restored. Rhys would find her there eventually, not in Shusoran, but in Cille on the neighboring isle.
Monsters attacked them in the underground passage. It was a waste of Shusoran's resources, but necessary to keep up appearances. Rhys could not expect to waltz into the castle entirely unchallenged. To Lyle's relief, none of the truly valuable specimens had been unleashed. His royal parents often indulged him, but getting them to understand how Maia might be on to something with her talk of peace with the Orakians and how letting Rhys through to see her might be a part of that had been difficult. He didn't want his parents to lose any prized monsters over his wishful thinking.
He was gambling a lot on Rhys, more than the prince would ever know.
"I wish we could've just entered through the front gate," said Rhys.
"Did you actually think Shusoran would have the front gate to its castle open when it's at war with Agoe?" asked Lyle.
"Agoe did and they're at war."
"I think Shusoran's expecting us," said Mieu. "I might not have seen a Layan town in a thousand years or so, but I don't think they're normally empty or solely filled with monsters. They could be baiting us. It's possible that Maia isn't even here, and the news we heard in Agoe was misinformation."
Wren nodded. "We're being herded. Once in the castle grounds we can attack the castle from any direction. If we must go through this tunnel then there is only one place we can emerge."
But when they did emerge into a guardhouse there was no ambush, which perplexed both the battle-hardened cyborgs. Rhys figured they should praise their luck and worry about the reason for it later. As far as he was concerned, Maia awaited them, and she was only a minutes away even if he had to tear apart the castle to find her.
Monsters attacked them again in the courtyard, but not a single human face appeared by the time they entered the castle itself. It was all the cyborgs could do to stop Rhys from charging headlong into the empty castle crying Maia's name. Caution, they reminded him. Lyle would have counseled him as well, but he thought it better that the advice came from one of the cyborgs instead of himself. He disliked having misled Rhys thus far and any unnecessary suggestions on his part would make it hard to win back the prince's trust if Lyle deemed him worthy.
His reasons for bringing him to Shusoran were threefold. The first reason was to see how Rhys intended to behave once he entered a Layan town, whether he was the type to participate in wanton thievery and destruction just because he disliked the people who inhabited it. Other than the kicking of the fountain, Rhys passed that test. Shusoran's castle was lavishly rich, and Rhys neither stole nor defaced a thing. Granted he might eventually destroy a good deal of property if left to his own devices and he still hadn't found Maia, but such actions would not be motivated by hatred.
The second reason for bringing Rhys was for him to see Lena. Lyle had met the girl, princess of Satera, quite by happenstance and had brought her to Shusoran of her own free will. She had her own designs on Rhys, and Lyle wasn't entirely certain if it was a bad case of adolescent love or something deeper than that. It didn't really matter to him, though he did have the vain hope that perhaps Rhys would fall in love with her instead, but that wouldn't please Maia. He thought it ironic that for the sake of the one he loved, he strove to unite her with Rhys. Perhaps it was not so different with Lena, wanting to help Rhys recover Maia. Lena also possessed the Moon Stone, a key that together with Lyle's Moon Tear would allow Rhys to use the weather control systems to fix a tidal problem preventing him from getting to Cille on foot.
And as for the third reason...
"It's her!" said Rhys, pointing to a distant balcony in the great hall they had entered. To his credit, the prince did not wave and holler to get her attention. "How did she get here?"
The girl he pointed at was not Maia, but rather Lena. She faced away from them, possibly oblivious to their presence. She should have been in her room where Lyle had asked her to stay. It was not a good idea to be an Orakian walking around alone in this castle, even as his guest, but this could work out in his favor.
"I found her," he said, sweeping past Rhys to reach a particular section of walling.
"You what? She doesn't belong in a place like this. Please help me take her away, Lyle!"
A passage opened in the wall at Lyle's touch. He stepped inside, leaving the befuddled prince behind. "If you want her back, fight for her!" Fight as you would fight for Maia! "I have to leave you now, Prince Rhys. I'll explain why later, if things work out."
The wall shut between them, and he knew the prince would not be able to find the trigger. This one was more carefully hidden than the one that had been at the fountain, and besides--he threw a second trigger on his side of the doorway--he'd just disabled it. In any case, Rhys had more important things to do right now, like finding Maia and getting to Lena. Lyle was sure he had been a quirky mystery to Rhys since the beginning, but he had never done him wrong. The prince had no reason to fear him--yet.
He hurried through the corridor, emerging into another hallway. Lyle caught glimpses of his people watching him in the halls. They had no doubt heard through the rumor mill that he intended some sort of confrontation with the Orakian prince. Rhys's path, if he stuck to it, would take him to the throne room. Lyle's soldiers would ensure that he got there, in the event he chose to wander back the way he had come, though Lyle prayed no one would get hurt.
He bumped into her in the hallway. She had left the balcony.
"Lyle, you're back!" She sighed and smiled in relief. "I know you didn't want me to leave, but no one's come to see me for hours and I thought something must be wrong. Almost all the doors are locked and-"
"Later." He took her firmly by the arm. "Prince Rhys has arrived. We have to meet him."
Together they jogged through the halls, via taking an alternate route from Rhys and arriving in the throne room well ahead of him. The Orakian prince was probably taking his time, still wary of ambushes. Shusoran's soldiers might have released another group of monsters to slow them down or nudge them in the right direction.
"I can't believe Rhys has made it this far," said Lena. "I never would have imagined I would either. When you told me you were helping Rhys I didn't think I'd end up going to a different world."
Lyle inspected his staff and gave it a twirl. "I don't think any of us did."
"What am I going to say to him?"
Rhys entered the southern end of the throne room. The cyborgs walked in behind him.
"What you have to," said Lyle, and then his attention focused completely on Rhys. He stepped in front of Lena, so that to get to her the prince would have to get through him.
"Lyle!" shouted Rhys, striding across the tiled floor. Judging from the cutting edge in the prince's voice, his patience had finally run out. Just as well. "What's going on?" he demanded. "Everything's perfectly set up in this place, certain rooms even emptied just before a pack of monsters attack us!" He had been waving his sword about as he spoke, but now Rhys moved to sheath it.
"You might want to keep that sword drawn," said Lyle, "and keep your cyborgs out of this." Glancing over his shoulder he added, "Lena, stay back." He raised his staff in challenge to the Orakian prince. "Now it's time to see you really fight, Rhys! To win passage through Shusoran you'll have to get through me!"
Rhys did not immediately realize Lyle was serious. Understandable. A shot of foi started the ends of Rhys's cape smoking. That got the message across.
Though Rhys did not realize it, he now had that battle against the dragon he dreamed of. If he had known the truth, Lyle had little doubt that there would be no mercy and Rhys's efforts to strike him would be double what they were now. His sword came in earnest to fend off Lyle's blows, but he did not truly want to hurt him, not without knowing why Lyle had suddenly decided to fight him. And what could Lyle tell him?
Sword clashed against staff and while Rhys's weapon had the upper hand, Lyle was not above using techniques to even the odds, the witchery that Orakians so often feared. He wanted to fight Rhys at his best, to know that this man was capable, was worthy, of becoming Maia's husband. No man should be able to match a Dragon Knight in his full glory, but Lyle kept that part of himself in check, holding the bronze dragon within him so that Rhys fought only a man with the heart of a dragon instead of the body of one.
Lyle refused to give ground, forcing Rhys to strike at him harder, with more than half-hearted force. His blood surged, the love he had for Maia striving to break free and complete the transformation to scales and wings. The stubborn nature of the battle had stirred the Orakian prince as well. That was what Lyle wanted to see.
Come after me. Come after the dragon who stole your beloved Maia!
Lyle swung, aiming to trip Rhys. The prince backstepped out of reach. He drew his staff back and Rhys doubled in for an attack. Lyle saw the blow coming and dodged. Too late he recognized the feint for what it was. Rhys's struck a scathing blow that arced down his staff and would have taken off his hand if Lyle hadn't dropped it. Lyle called a foi to his hands, but Rhys was too close.
He raised his sword at Lyle's throat. Breathing heavily he rasped, "Now, you are going to tell me what's going on."
Lyle dismissed the ball of fire, knowing that Rhys could skewer him before he could cast a second technique and the first would not be enough to incapacitate him. "You're a lot tougher than I thought, Rhys."
The sword lowered as Lyle yielded the fight. He hadn't wanted to lose. He had given his best, his human best, and that was not enough. Rhys had won, and it was fair. The dragon in Lyle bowed, ceding the protection he had once offered to Maia to her new champion. Rhys was worthy.
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