Sari reached her destination, her army's most distant outpost, as the false sun of Alisa III was dipping behind the western mountains. It was a camp of several hundred cyborgs positioned as near to Elysium, Lune's dome, as Sari's army had been able to get. The cyborgs were a diverse group, ranging from Warlbots to Whistles to Wrens. But they were loyal and fierce and had defended Landen well. The leader, who called himself Leowren, told the queen that no Layans had been spotted for ten days. Sari told the cyborgs to hold their position for the time being, and then she began the long march home.
As the moon Dahlia, Lune's headquarters, rose in the sky, Sari reached the Satera plain. There, along the shore of Landen's small sea, she encountered a group of five cyborgs. They were lead by a Mieu with a bandaged arm. Sari asked these cyborgs if they had seen any Layans about. The Mieu, who had obviously augmented herself for she was well over two meters tall, said that she and her men had not. However, earlier that day, they had spotted a small band making its way toward Landen. At first the tall Mieu had been concerned, but then she noticed that two in the party were fellow cyborgs. One was another Mieu and the was other a Wren. Sari smiled and thanked the cyborgs. And then she pressed home to Landen.
It was midnight by the time the queen reached the gate of Landen castle. A royal soldier met her there.
"I heard talk of a party moving in this direction," Sari said. "Do I have guests?"
"Yes, Majesty," the guard replied. "It is Lord Sean and his friends."
"Friends? Then he is not just with Mieu and Wren?"
The guard shook his head emphatically no. "I.... I'm afraid not."
Instinctively, the queen's hand, hidden beneath her cloak, flew to the hilt of the laconian sword at her side. "There is trouble."
The guard sighed. "Not yet. But there might be soon."
Sari's brow furrowed and she nodded. The soldier called out for the gate to be raised, and the queen of Landen strode into her home.
Her guests were waiting for her in the throne room. It was dark inside, with the thick crimson curtains tightly drawn and the only light coming from a handful of wall torches. Sean was waiting there. His clothes were dirty, his cloak torn, and he'd cut his ponytail. When he turned to face Sari, the queen saw that his cheek was bruised. Mieu and Wren were there as well, beside Sean as always. Wren was as composed as he ever was, but Mieu seemed weary.
Sari stepped toward her friends quickly, wondering if they had befallen some misfortune. But she stopped short when one of the shadows along the wall stepped out into the torch light.
It was a woman. At first, Sari did not recognize her. The woman wore a cloak similar to Sari's, though violet in color, with its hood drawn up. The woman was also looking to the floor, which left her face in darkness.
But then she raised her head to meet Sari's gaze. Revealed was a face like that of a porcelain doll. Lush lime-colored hair that shone as if it had a metallic finish fell about the woman's shoulders. A violet bandanna was hanging in that hair. When the woman unclasped her cloak, revealing violet battle armor, Sari noticed that an elegant lime-green slicer was hanging from the woman's belt.
Sari froze where she stood. There was a crackling sound as her hands, gloved with laconian gauntlets, clenched into fists. The smile on Sari's face that had been born of relief at seeing her friends fell into a scowl of disgust and rage.
How, Sari wondered, could Sean, who she practically considered to be her own son, bring Lune's wretched daughter into Landen Castle? How could he allow Kara herself into the heart of the Orakian camp?
"What is this?" Sari asked, turning her eyes back on Sean.
Sean sighed. "Aunt Sari, I believe you already know Princess Kara of Dahlia."
Kara was motionless. Sari, however, grabbed Sean by the wrist and roughly pulled him closer. "How could you bring that woman here?" she asked. "Only two weeks ago I fought her nearly to the death!"
Sean shot Kara a helpless glance. "Aunt Sari, please! You don't understand!"
Sari let go of Sean and stared at Kara again. "You're certainly right about that. So explain it."
"Kara has joined my efforts," Sean said. "Her father has called back his armies."
Kara stiffened even more at the words. Her expressionless mouth changed into a frown.
"For what end would you trust this witch?" Sari cried. "Has she put some spell over you?"
Mieu stepped between Sean and Sari. In her calm, deep voice she said, "Sari, please stop this. We have information. Will you listen?"
Sari took a deep breath. "Yes, of course. Forgive me."
Mieu nodded. "Very well. The war here in Landen has merely been an unfortunate byproduct of Lune's actual mission."
Sari felt the blood drain from her face. "Which would be what?"
"Lune's purpose has been to find a route to Aridia. Unfortunately, when Lune realized that the only path to Aridia was through your kingdom, he simply assumed that you would refuse him passage. That is why he attacked Satera. He sought to conquer you and thus open the way to Aridia."
Wren stepped forward and spoke. As always, his voice was nearly monotone. Even so, Sari was glad to hear it. Wren's unshakable calm had always helped her to steady herself when she became overly excited.
"Lune is seeking what he calls 'Laya's Treasure,'" Wren said. "He would not divulge the nature of that treasure. However, he says that it is imperative that we find it. It is Laya's Treasure which awaits in Aridia."
"We've come to realize that there is a greater evil at work here," Sean said, putting a hand on Sari's shoulder. "Lune isn't our true enemy. In fact, he wanted to help us, but he said he could not leave his people, so Kara came along with us instead. We're on the same side now. The war is over!"
Sari and Kara locked eyes. "I find this very hard to believe."
Kara raised a thin eyebrow. "I wouldn't have believed it myself, had I not been there."
There was a pause; then Sari said, "It is true that there has been no Layan activity in Landen since our last battle. It's been...wonderfully quiet lately."
Kara shrugged. "Sean made my father see that the war was a mistake. Even I see that now."
"All right," Sari said. "If you're traveling to Aridia that means your journey is only halfway over. And it looks like you've had a tough trip already."
Sean smiled. Mieu nodded.
"You must stay here for tonight," Sari told them. "My cousins who...fled Satera are here, but there are rooms to spare. And don't give me any arguments!"
"I was hoping you would say that," Sean said. "I wasn't sure if you would allow it, considering--"
Sari waved her hand. "Forget it. Now, we'll have to set up rooms for everyone. I'll take care of that. Feel free to wander about...." Sari's eyes drifted to Kara again as she spoke. "Sean, you know where the guest rooms are."
"Yes, Aunt Sari," Sean said with a nod.
Sari began to unclasp her cloak. "All right," she said. "The rooms will be ready in a few minutes." With that, the queen left the throne room.
Sean took a deep breath and looked at his companions. "That went well."
"It did?" Kara asked.
Sean shrugged. "Better than I expected. You know, Kara, you can't blame her for having misgivings. You two did try to kill each other a few weeks back."
"That is war, Sean," was Kara's reply. "You have no experience with it. I, however, grew up as a soldier. As much as war is a part of me, I am a part of it. Do not try to tell me what it is or what it means."
Sean looked wounded. "I didn't mean to offend you."
Kara turned her back to Sean and stared at one of the torches flickering on the wall. "You didn't." There was a short pause. Then, "I saw towers as we approached. Is there somewhere I can go to look at the sky?"
"Certainly," Sean said, gently taking Kara's shoulder. "I can show you the way."
Kara bowed. Like all of her gestures, it was polite but cold. Sharp. "Thank you," she said. "I would appreciate it."
"What are your orders for us, Sean?" Mieu asked as the two young people made to leave.
Sean grinned, but weakly. "Sorry. I keep forgetting that you're under my command now. Well...I guess you should just try to relax."
Mieu smiled and Wren nodded. "Thank you," Mieu said. "We'll do our best."
Kara had made her way to the entrance of the throne room. She stopped there and half looked over her shoulder, waiting for Sean. Her face and hands were hidden again in the folds of her cloak, and she said nothing. But when Sean took her elbow, Kara's characteristic coldness was unmistakable.
They walked slowly down the halls, silent but for the clanging of their boots on the stone floor and the clanging of Sean's own laconian sword. From the throne room they took two right turns, and at the end of a long hallway, near the back door that the led into the castle garden, they found the stairs to take them upwards. The staircase spiraled for a time, eventually ending at a thin door shaped like an upside-down teardrop. Sean pushed it open gently. The door's creaking was quickly silenced by the brutal screams of the midnight winds.
When they passed through the door they were on the roof of the main structure of Landen Castle. It was rectangular in shape, with towers at each corner. Kara slowly stepped over to the ramparts on the nearest edge. She rested her white hands on the battlements and stared up into the sky. Sean let her go alone. He meandered across the rooftop balcony, watching the stars. Occasionally he would hear a rustling or a snap or a creak beyond the castle walls, and he would peer out into the darkness, half expecting to see a vast army of Layan monsters ready to storm the city. But he never saw anything, and he chided himself for his paranoia.
Sean had been staring up at the sky for a good long while when he was startled to find that Kara had silently crept up behind him. He let out a short cry and whirled about to face her.
"Please don't sneak up on me like that!" he said.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I did not mean to frighten you."
Sean straightened himself and looked down upon the town of Landen. "Yeah, I know," he said.
"I came out here so that I could see my home," Kara said. She pointed at the purple moon Dahlia, sailing gracefully across the sky. "I know how far away it is, but it almost looks like you could hit it if you threw a stone at it. Don't you think?"
Sean shuffled his feet and kept his eyes on the town below him. "Yes."
Kara lowered her arm and was quiet for a moment. "I must apologize yet again," she whispered. "I am aware of the destruction of your own moon, of course. It was most insensitive of me to broach the topic."
"It's all right," Sean replied with a shake of his head. "Now, I've been meaning to apologize for how I exploded at you when we first met. I--"
"You thought that my father was responsible for the destruction of Azura, did you not? I guessed as much, and I must admit, I understand why you thought it. All you knew of my father was that he was at war with Queen Sari, your family friend. You could not possibly know that he would never fire on a fellow Layan." When Sean said nothing, Kara asked, "You do consider yourself Layan, do you not? Both of your parents were Layan, correct?"
Sean nodded. "Yes. King Ayn of Cille and Queen Thea of Shusoran. Though my grandfather, King Rhys, was a full-blooded Orakian. And you did know that he was the prince of Landen in his youth, right?"
"Landen? Sari's kingdom? How odd." Kara thought about it for a while then asked, "Such an unusual lineage. What is your title?"
Sean sighed. "'King Sean of Cille-Shusoran' would be my official title. Not that it means much, since my land and all of my people...." Sean's voice cracked and broke off. His head slumped between his shoulders.
"But do you consider yourself a Layan? Layan men wear their hair long. You had a ponytail, but you cut it off this morning."
"Why are you asking me these things?" Sean asked in a hoarse, quiet voice.
"I want to understand," Kara answered. "I want to know how the world became so turned upside down that a Layan kingdom like yours could be turned against Lune, the greatest hero of Layan history next to Laya herself."
Sean chuckled, though there was no levity in his voice. "I see now. When you asked me if I was a Layan or not, you should have more clearly defined the term."
"I do not understand."
"In your mind, I'm not a Layan unless I fight to kill and murder and rape the Orakians. Those foul, beastly Orakians. Is that right?"
Kara said nothing, though her eyes did not leave Sean's.
"Well how am I supposed to hate Orakians when my grandfather was Orakian and my father was half-Orakian, and when Sari, the queen of the most powerful Orakian kingdom in the world, is practically my blood, and has all but become my mother since Azura was destroyed? Well? Answer me that?"
Kara took a deep breath. "You take offense too easily, King Sean. And you do me an injustice. I meant to imply no such thing."
Sean sighed and threw his hands in the air. "You want to know why I cut off my ponytail? Or how about why I use a sword, an Orakian weapon, instead of a staff or a slicer or a bow? Yes, Kara, I am Layan. I consider myself a Layan. But I'm Orakian, too. Like my father, I wasn't raised just to praise Laya, but Orakio as well. I imagine you can't even understand that."
"I cannot relate," Kara said, "for I was not raised that way. But I can understand. Better than you know."
"Don't be cryptic. What's that supposed to mean?"
Kara stepped up to stand directly beside Sean. She, too, looked over the town of Landen, and she said, "It means that my mother was an Orakian."
Slowly, Sean turned to face Kara. "What?"
"My father sought another woman -- a Layan princess taken captive by Siren, the crazed cyborg your parents and Sari defeated -- the cyborg I think is responsible for Azura's destruction."
The theory made sense to Sean. He meant to comment on it, but Kara continued.
"My father planned to rescue this princess. He had heard that she was beautiful, and he hoped to marry her. However, the princess was rescued before my father arrived. She was rescued by a distant relation, a cousin. By your father."
"Are you telling me that Lune wanted to marry my mother, Thea of Shusoran?"
"That is correct. Soon after he was awakened, father heard of how Cille-Shusoran, the most powerful Layan land, had fallen to Siren. He wanted to rebuild it with your mother at his side, as his queen. It was part of his plan for the conquest of Alisa III. But your father beat him to it."
"But what does this have to do with your mother?"
"The people of Aerone are Layan, but they are friendly with the Divisians, who are Orakian. A Divisian woman was living in Aerone at this time. One night, father had too much to drink. He does that when he is upset, and he was upset that night over losing Thea. He took the woman to his bed. That is...where I come from. My aunt, Alair, tried to prevent me from ever learning the truth. She didn't want me to bear the shame of it. But I was curious and I eventually found it all out." There was another pause. "So you see, Sean, I understand your feelings well enough. How do you think it was for me when I had to attack Divisia, knowing that my mother might be somewhere amid the bodies? How do you think it felt to realize that even if my mother was there, I wouldn't recognize her?"
The two quietly looked at the town below for a while. Then Sean asked, "Did you ever find out? About your mother, I mean."
Kara shook her head. "I eventually learned that she left Divisia many years ago. I still hope to meet her one day." Kara looked up into Sean's eyes. "I hope your mother is alive as well. Since you were not on the Satellite when it was destroyed, since you didn't see for yourself...."
"There were other, smaller shuttles," Sean muttered. "I know my mother and father must have ordered our people to evacuate Azura before it blew. Hopefully some of them escaped. Maybe I'll even met them again someday."
There was a loud clanging on the tower steps. Kara and Sean looked over their shoulders to see Sari, still wearing her traveling cloak, emerge onto the rooftop. She took a deep breath of the crisp air of the autumn night; it felt good since the wind had finally stopped. And then Sari joined the two young people at the ramparts.
"I take it our rooms are ready," Sean said to her.
"They've been ready for several minutes now," Sari told him. "It's funny; I've never seem Mieu plop down on a bed like that. I know she gets tired sometimes, but I didn't know she could actually sleep."
"She only does that when she is totally drained of energy," Sean said. "Wren doesn't seem to have that problem, though."
"You might want to let Cook have a look at those bruises, Sean," Sari added. "Cook can usually patch that sort of thing up even better than the local healers can. She's got a gift for ointments, it seems."
Sean smiled. "I'll take her up on that."
"Good. Go on, move along!" Sari shooed Sean back towards the tower stairs. Sean, chuckling, quickly descended. Sari waited for him to leave. When she heard the door at the tower's base slam shut, she turned to Kara, who was watching the sky again.
"I wanted to talk to you alone," Sari said. "But now, it looks like it's going to rain. We should go inside."
"Rain," Kara said, simply. "I've only seen it a few times before. Perhaps I should stay and watch."
Sari's hand moved closer to Kara's shoulder. But it stopped before it met the fabric of the Layan woman's cloak. That royal Orakian hand, still in its gauntlet, hovered where it was, shaking in the wind.
"You really should come inside," Sari repeated. "The summer rain can actually feel good on your skin. But the autumn rain is bitterly cold, especially at night. Come inside before you catch your death out here!"
Kara turned on her heel and looked into Sari's eyes. Sari was startled by the crushed look on Kara's face. The pretense of arrogance and aloofness had fallen away. It was at that moment that Sari realized Kara's superior air truly had been just that: pretense.
"Lady Kara...?" Sari asked, hear hand still waiting.
Kara broke a thin smile. "You called me a lady. Who would have thought that possible two weeks ago?"
"I don't understand."
"My father spoke very cruelly of you," Kara said. "He said you fought him out of anger. He said you were bitter because Prince Ayn of Cille had chosen his own cousin as his wife over you."
Sari's teeth bit hard into her bottom lip. The taunt was hard to hear because, although Lune was wrong that Sari fought because of the pain of rejection, there was more truth in Lune's words than Sari would dare to admit.
"I laughed when he said that, but what he said made me think. It made me question why it was that I was so angry. I asked myself if I had always been this way. The answer I came to was...yes!"
Sari shook her head. "Now really, please--"
"I must say this!" Kara cried. "You have to know that I do not hate you, nor do I look down upon you, for your Orakian heritage or for any other reason. If I was to do so, I would be not only a hypocrite, but a fool. I am sorry for my past behavior. I acted not out of loyalty to my family or my pride in being a Layan, nor out of a sense of duty, or any other sense that springs from a noble heart. No. I acted out of rage. I took pleasure in laying waste to your towns and putting your people in danger because I could not determine what the true source of my anger was. But now I know!"
"What are you trying to tell me?"
"I was motivated by jealousy. Queen Sari, tales of your devotion to your late mother, Queen Lena of Satera, are legion. I envied you because you had the one thing that was always denied me: a mother's love."
At those words, Sari could feel her eyes grew wet and hot. Her hand, still hovering, at last found the princess' shoulder, which it squeezed.
"Tonight, I heard Sean speak of his mother, and you, with such passion. Earlier, I saw how anxious he was about bringing me here. Initially I thought he was simply a coward who feared your wrath. But I was wrong. It was respect and love, not cowardice."
"But Kara, what is it you ask of me?"
"Nothing, other than know that I regret what I did, what I said, how I acted. I was cruel to Sean and cruel to you, and for no just reason. And although my father gave the orders, I took pleasure in bringing hardship after hardship to your entire kingdom. Laya! That was so wrong!"
It was then that a realization fell over Sari. It startled her so that she nearly jumped. She remembered a day twenty years before, a day when she had planned the death of Ayn simply because he was the son of Rhys -- the son of the man Sari blamed for her own mother's death. Even then, twenty years later, Sari was ashamed of what she'd done. She remembered how Ayn had shown her remarkable kindness in the face of constant antagonism. And Sari remembered how, despite that kindness, she had still had the nerve to boldly declare that her mission was to see to Rhys' death. What had she been thinking? What monster had possessed her?
Only at that moment twenty years later, when Sari had looked into the eyes of a girl so much like herself, did she finally understand. What Kara had hated in Sari was the same as what Sari had hated in Ayn. Sari had envied the devotion Rhys had to his son, and the love and respect Ayn had shown to his father. And Sari had hated Thea not simply because she was some sort of rival. No, Sari hated Thea because Thea's father loved her so much that he was willing to sacrifice his very life for her. Sari had never known what that was like. She never knew her own father. But once she saw what having a father was really like, she wanted it. And, in truth, she'd wanted it even before then. Sari smiled. You can miss what you've never had. But sometimes, it's not too late to find what you're missing.
"Kara," Sari said. "You have never had a mother. As you know, I never married. So, I never had a daughter. Maybe...we can remedy that now."
Kara smiled. She hadn't expected the sudden turn of events, but it didn't quite surprise her, either. For although the hard-nosed and sometimes brutal Sari was a part of the real Sari, that was not the totality of her. There was softness there, too. Stillness, and quietness. "I would like that," Kara said.
The queen put her arm around the princess' shoulders, and together the two of them returned to the ground floor of the castle. Sean was standing at the bottom of the steps, waiting. He did not look pleased.
"I was wondering where you were," he said. "I don't see any black eyes or broken limbs.... Please tell me that you behaved yourselves up there."
Kara looked at Sari uncertainly. Sari smiled and said, "We were signing a peace treaty. Every war needs a proper ending, no?"
Kara gave a sly grin. "Call it a formal reconciliation," she said.
Sean smiled. "I like the sound of that. By the way, Kara, the room they've prepared for you is lovely. And best of all, it's right next to mine!"
Further down the hall, Mieu, who had been Sean's childhood nursemaid, coughed loudly.
Kara blushed but said, "And I am supposed to like the sound of that? Do you remember our camp last night, sir? I am already familiar with the sound of your snoring. I assure you, it is not pleasant."
It was Sean's turn to blush. "Yes, yes. Come on, let's get to bed. It would be best to get an early start tomorrow." Sean and Kara began the walk to the castle's west wing, where the bedchambers were located. But after only a few steps, they stopped and looked back at Sari, who still stood at the bottom of the tower stairs.
"Aren't you coming?" Sean asked.
Sari nodded. "Yes, of course," she said. "I was just wondering something."
"What is it?" Sean asked.
"Sean, you don't happen to have any cousins in other kingdoms, do you?"
Sean thought about it for a moment. "No, none that I know of. Why do you ask?"
Sari looked at Sean and Kara. They reminded her of traveling companions from long ago. "Just wondering."
As the three prepared to retire for the night, the rain began to fall. The cold rain fell over the charred battlefields in the west, and over the scattered bands of cyborgs. The rain found the few remaining Layan monsters, who whimpered, crawled under rocks, and climbed into trees as they tried to escape the cold, falling water. The rain fell on roofs in the town of Landen, and on the castle, and on the tenderly-gardened plot where Lena lay buried. The autumnal rain fell over all the kingdom, but even it could not permeate the walls of Landen Castle. There was too much warmth within -- a warmth born from a new peace between the generations. For two crippled hearts there would finally be healing. They had found their own quietness. And friends.
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