"How are you not freezing to death in that sacrilegious, indecAH-CHOO!"
"Seems someone is talking about you behind your back," Mieu commented serenely.
"I'm pretty sure that sneeze just now has less to do with gossip behind my back and more to do with the freezing cold threatening to turn me into a eunuch."
Snow crunched underfoot as the redhead giggled lightly. Rhys hugged his cloak tightly to his body and shivered as the winter wind cut through the thin cloth and stabbed deep within his bones. This was not happening. It could not be happening. It didn't make any sense.
"Mieu, what was that?"
"What was what?" Mieu asked as she walked ahead of him, a pack of supplies over her shoulder, utterly unconcerned by the icy gales that had his teeth chattering. How she could walk around in a bright red strip of cloth that covered no more than a corset he could not begin to understand.
"I told you," the redhead said in a tone of long-suffering patience. "It's the transport framework between Landen and Aquatica. All of the seven worlds used to be connected via those passages. They allowed for the movement of people and goods."
An exasperated sigh came from Mieu. "The worlds were created by an advanced civilization. The transport framework is one of many advanced systems. Where did you think robots and androids came from?"
"Don't you mean cyborgs?"
"'Android' is the proper designator for a machine like me, and if it takes three generations, I'll beat that into you," came the tart reply. "We shouldn't dilly dally. I don't want you to get frostbite."
"Shouldn't you have worried about that before we got out of the tunnel?"
"As I also told you before, at this time of year, the weather should be mild and sunny. If I'd known before we entered the transport framework that Climatrol would be malfunctioning, we would have turned around and gotten some winter gear."
"We're in a hurry!" Rhys replied as his teeth clattered against each other loudly. "There's no time to backtrack!"
"I wish you hadn't left without any spare clothes, Prince," Mieu said, her face scrunched up into a moue of distaste.
"What does that have anything to do with anything?" Rhys asked.
"You mean besides the fact you stink right now?" Mieu asked caustically. "More clothes would have meant more warmth, less chance of frostbite."
"You're a cyborg, aren't you?" Rhys replied grumpily, all too aware his hygiene had not exactly been a priority during his search for his missing fiancée. "Turn off your nose."
"Who says I didn't?"
"The fact you're still complaining about it," he observed dryly.
"...fair enough. Deactivating olfactory unit."
Pleased to have gotten the best of the sharp-tongued cyborg, Rhys rubbed his arms for warmth as he divided his attention between his footing on the snow and the drab horizon. A world that shouldn't exist was just one of his worries.
His list of worries had grown with every step he had taken on his quest. It wasn't just concern for Maia's abduction and worry for Lena burrowing a hole in his mind. There was Lyle's mention of his father and the old king's possible illness, a state supported by rumors that had reached the furthest reaches of the frontier. Worse, that same hearsay told of nobles at court engaged in vicious intrigue and conflict brewing. And these were just the lesser woes.
Far worse was the mysterious temple they had stumbled upon at the Edge of the World, the sheer stone cliffs that encircled the world of Landen like the rim of a bowl. The large building, built of smooth gray stone, stood proudly on that grassy plain. An array of fluted columns served as the only way into the place, its stone floor untouched by monsters or plants even as climbing plants grew over its outer walls like a second skin.
Knife at the ready, Rhys had entered, Mieu behind him, and had stared at the empty room. The fluted columns were the only decoration as the wall that encircled the temple did nothing to detract from the monotony within. The gray tiles on the floor were smooth, dull, and just as boring. At the center of the temple, an elevated dais stood with an array of steps. Rhys had stepped onto the platform, curious, and had jumped when a thunderous voice had boomed out.
"Only Layans belong in Laya's palace! Begone!"
Mieu had shrugged. "Well, this hasn't changed in a thousand years. Let's do as the voice said and leave."
"What was that?" he had demanded even as he hightailed it out.
"As the voice said, Laya's palace."
"What's it doing in Landen?"
"Are you always this mysterious?" he had complained.
Mieu had shrugged. "We all have gaps in our knowledge, Prince."
From that stance, Mieu had not budged. Rhys suspected she knew more than she let on, but why she was keeping it a secret, he didn't know. Unfortunately, it was only one of the surprises in store for him.
They had proceeded north to where rumor said a door to another world was hidden. They had advanced on a cave like any other. To him, the whole thing was as silly as a fairy tale. An over-sized gem that acted as the key to some other world that no one had seen in a thousand years? Patently absurd, but the only clue he had to where Maia might be. He had advanced on the cave, certain they were about to be disappointed when the Sapphire had glowed with an intense blue light. Something he could not see had parted as the barest whisper of the inexplicable had whispered at the edge of his mind before they had gone inside.
His jaw had dropped when he descended a metal staircase and stared at the impossible.
An alien landscape met the eyes as far as they could see as the soft hum of machinery filled the air. Columnar structures composed of dull gray machine parts stretched far overhead and deep into the shadows below as small lights blinked at random, ominous eyes watching from the darkness. Segmented metal walkways ran parallel to glass paths that gave a traveler a bird's eye view of mechanisms illuminated by their activity. Just one of those pillars had more technology than the best foundry in Landen.
"Village ahead," Mieu said suddenly. "At our current pace, we should be there in thirty minutes or so."
"Good," Rhys said as he watched his breath become visible. "I'm sick of you and your inspections anyway."
"You say that now, but you'd complain if you had to chop off a toe."
Rhys shook his head as they continued south. They had been walking through the cold of this world that should not exist ever since they had emerged from that "transport framework." Mieu had been diligent in finding decent shelters that could get them out of the cold for a night's rest, but her inspections...! A properly engaged man should not be subjected to an examination akin to a goodwife evaluating vegetables at market!
But this world... this impossible world that should not exist troubled him as much as all his other worries combined. His entire life there had been but one world, Landen, and the two kingdoms of Landen and Satera. But now, an inconceivable journey through a mechanical tunnel of metal and glass later, there were two worlds he had seen with his very own eyes. Was this where the foul dragon-spawn of Laya had come from? Were there more Layans here? Was Maia here? Were there truly seven worlds?
And Mieu, prancing around in the biting cold that left him shivering without the slightest worry! The more he observed the redhead in action, the more he began to truly believe she was what she claimed to be, a cyborg in human form. Rhys shook his head. Too many shocks in too little time.
He sighed. It would be wonderful to have someone to talk to about the uncertainty enveloping his mind. Mieu was sympathetic, but Rhys didn't think she'd understand. If she really was a cyborg that had slept ever since Orakio's time, she wouldn't know what he felt. He wished Lena or Maia or even his father were here with him right now. They would all listen to him, help him land on his mental feet. Of course, if Maia were here, they wouldn't be having the conversation in the first place, whereas his father would toss him right back into the dungeons.
I'm glad you got out safely, Lena. The diplomatic scandal would not have been fun.
After a long trudge through the snow that added to his physical and mental numbness, they entered the village. It was a pretty place, its wooden houses obviously well-made, its roads paved with smooth stones. The wooden shutters on all the windows were drawn, and chimneys puffed out gray smoke from white-covered rooftops. A few men shoveled while others dragged logs through the snow.
It was a scene that would not have been out of place in Landen, but for one thing. There weren't any children at play. Rhys knew from his own childhood it was impossible to keep a energetic child behind closed doors when snow was on the ground, and the lack of those cheerful squeals bothered him.
Someone cleared their throat nearby. Rhys turned his head and saw a man and a woman standing side by side in winter clothes. His numb body ached in envy.
"This is Rysel, stranger, a small fishing village," the woman said pleasantly, her accent different from that of Landen's commoners, her eyes wary as she studied him and Mieu. "Visitors have been scarce in recent times. What brings you here?"
"It's a long story," Rhys sighed. "Would you kindly point me toward the inn? I've been traveling non-stop for days in this snow."
"It's over yonder," the man said, pointing at a building longer and taller than the others in the village. "Fair warning, stranger, you can expect some warmth, but not much else. We're all suffering from hunger and severe cold."
"I understand," Rhys said and walked toward the inn. He was surprised when the two fell in step with him. He glanced at them, puzzled.
The man noticed first. "We own the inn."
"I see," Rhys replied as he pushed open the door and stopped within the threshold as at least a dozen emaciated faces turned to stare at him. Discomfited, Rhys looked around. The common room was large, but everyone was huddled together around the fire at one end, heavy fur blankets over their persons to keep out the cold. Hostile eyes attempted to drill a hole through his head. The innkeeper had to nudge him to continue inside. The door closed behind him.
The hostile faces changed to shock. Rhys guessed they had finally noticed Mieu, her bright red leotard that did nothing to conceal her feminine charms, and the fact it concealed virtually nothing. Better her than me, he thought sourly as he headed toward the unoccupied table nearest the fire.
The innkeeper had followed him to the table. The man's face was neutral, but he could tell when his welcome was thin, at best. "Is there any chance of a room tonight?" Rhys asked.
"There's always a chance," the innkeeper said after a pause. The man sat down and looked at him suspiciously. "I think you said you had a story to tell, stranger."
No point putting it off. "My name is Prince Rhys Sa Riik of Landen," he began before he was interrupted.
"Prince? Of Landen? Ha! And Sa Riik too? You got a real prize tonight, Darr!"
Rhys shot a look at the fireplace. "If you're too deaf to notice my accent is different from yours, I can only suppose your mother boxed your ears every time she tried to teach you it was rude to interrupt when someone else was speaking."
A slight smile crossed the innkeeper's — Darr's — face. "It is true I've never heard your accent before, and I've had guests from as far as Agoe." The smile was replaced by a frown. "But it's also true that Lord Orakio's kingdom of Landen is a story."
"You'd be surprised how much truth can exist in a story," Rhys said with a sigh. "I am Orakio's descendant, Prince of Landen. Mieu is a cyborg."
"Now, lad, you can't just say absurd things like—"
"Would a normal, decent Orakian woman be wandering out in this weather wearing...that?" Rhys demanded.
Darr frowned. "Well, no, but—"
"Mieu!" Rhys called out.
Her intent study of the common room interrupted, the redhead walked over. "Yes, Prince?"
"Are you cold?"
"As I've told you before, no, I'm not."
"Now that's just—"
"Mieu, is it possible for an Orakian to catch a blade in mid-swing barehanded?"
"The best-case scenario would end with a large chunk of a hand sliced off, assuming the Orakian in question possessed the speed and strength to stop the blade. Most likely he would get a sword in his hea—"
Rhys felt the jolt up his arm as Mieu caught his combat knife in mid-swing, just as she had at their first meeting. With a sigh, he released his knife and sat down before he addressed his next comments to the gaping innkeeper. "Besides, would anyone really claim descent from Orakio if it weren't true? He'd probably strike the offender down on the spot."
A slow nod. "I can't really argue with that. What brought you here, Prince Rhys?"
So Rhys told him. Told him of his engagement, his wedding interrupted by the foul Layan dragon-spawn. Told him of his imprisonment at his father's command that lasted until Lena freed him. Of the relentless search throughout Landen that had brought him to Mieu. Told him of the worry and stress that ate at him as he feared for Maia's life.
When he finished, Rhys became aware that everyone inside the common room had been listening. Rather than embarrassed, he felt relieved. He had nothing to hide. He only wanted to rescue his bride and take her home. A brief silence reigned before a woman called out.
"A monster carrying a beautiful woman flew across the sea!"
Rhys turned toward the fireplace. "That must be her! Is there any way to cross the sea?"
"The deadly winter came upon us without warning," said the old man who had mocked him earlier. "The fishing boats can't leave port. We can do nothing but starve and die."
Those bitter words were the catalyst for a raging flood.
"We can't fish in a sea of ice— we're starving!"
"You're Orakio's descendant, aren't you? Can't you do something?"
"Yeah, if the god's your ancestor, he'll listen to you, won't he?"
"I'm too young to die! Please help us, heroes!"
"Please help us before we all die!"
"Please help us!"
Rhys turned his head toward Darr and opened his mouth to decline, to point out that he had no authority here, that his descent from Orakio did not mean he had power over the weather, that his priority was to save Maia—
And then he looked into the innkeeper's eyes.
Slowly, he closed his mouth, and turned back to the people clustered around the fireplace. Every one of them, graybeard, youth, matron, maiden, stared at him with the same expression, a look that combined abject despair, a tiny ember of hope, and complete trust.
Trust in Orakio. Trust in a son of his blood.
Trust in him.
Rhys closed his eyes. No matter where he went, he had a burden he could never abandon, one he had inherited from his father, who had inherited it from his father, an ancestral obligation passed down all the generations since the Devastation War. He had left his kingdom for a time, it was true, but he would return. No matter what, he would never besmirch his honor or disgrace his ancestor's name.
"I will help you."