The fine-toothed comb hit yet another snag. Alair swore softly as she carefully worked out the tangle in the recently-washed hair. When her comb met no more resistance, she made another sound of displeasure before she moved on to the next section, the last in far too many. The soft, resigned sigh she heard in front of her greatly piqued her.
"If you had taken better care of your hair in the first place, we wouldn't be here!"
"You, of all people, should know how much work goes into keeping this rat's nest nice! It takes forever to comb out when you do take proper care of it, and it only takes longer when you are traipsing about Aridia and Frigidia!"
Alair glared into the mirror. Sahana gazed back serenely, those familiar indigo eyes distant and mysterious... yet there was a light in them Alair recognized from a shared childhood and the superior perspective of being just enough older to have babysat the younger woman.
"Are you just going to say that to everything I say?" Alair asked, exasperated.
"You...!" Alair gave Sahana a playful shake. "I should never have let you con me into this!"
"The Kay Eshyrs were ever weak to smiles from Laya's family," Sahana replied, a hint of smugness in her tone. "My sister told me a few stories about our mother's childhood. She enjoyed pointing out how your father would do anything my mother asked when she smiled at him."
"So you admit it. You did it on purpose."
"Yes, I, with all the cunning of a newborn infant, deliberately used my gap-toothed smile to draw you in, an innocent and defenseless toddler." Sahana's light-hearted response was followed by a sigh. "Alair, you didn't invite your sister-in-law just so she could stare at me, did you?"
Alair looked at Thea and pursed her lips at the familiar look she saw in those blue eyes. It was the same look Layans had worn a thousand years past when faced with their fearsome leader, a look that blended reverence with fear. She saw herself frown in the mirror as she absently ran Sahana's long golden hair through her fingers.
Sahana... wasn't really Sahana anymore. She was Laya. She was the solution to the quandary of what united their physical world with the universe beyond their perception. She was not the first Laya, but she was descended from the avatar of the Great Goddess that had brought them the answer and linked their world with the origin of creation. Her people had recognized that the connection existed in the women of the avatar's line, so when a Laya died, her closest female relative took her place.
Laya was venerated and honored amongst the Espers, and with her childhood friend's return, it was obvious that the Layans had fallen into a similar approach. In a roundabout way, the Layans now worshipped the Great Goddess and Laya's connection to her. The problem was that Laya was isolated from everyone else by her holy status. That might have suited Laya, but it did not suit Alair, especially when it involved Sahana.
"Thea, stop staring."
Eyes the size of saucers met her gaze. "But... Laya is in my room!"
"Chiefly because you're the only one on Dahlia with a giant mirror," Alair replied tartly as she gestured at the tripartite vanity. She looked back into the mirror. "As for you, I don't know when you stopped putting your hair into a braid, but back into one it goes."
Displeasure filled the golden-haired girl's face. Alair ignored the facial expression on the verge of a pout as she separated the hair into two equal sections at the back of Sahana's head. Alair held the right section with her right hand. It was only a matter of time before it started.
"I don't want my hair in a braid!"
Using her left hand, Alair picked up a half-inch of hair from the outside of the left section and crossed it over to the inside of the right section. "I've always put your hair in a braid."
"It's so... restrained. I like my hair being free!"
Holding the left section in her left hand, Alair used her right hand to pick up a half-inch of hair from the outer right section and crossed it over to the inside of the left section. "Whereas I like not having to pick out two thousand tangles for two feet of hair."
"One day, I'll grow my hair out to my knees, and no one will make me put it into a braid!"
Alair stopped herself from smiling as the golden-haired girl pouted in the mirror. It was something of a relief that the whole exchange was so classically Sahana. "Your army of hairdressers will instead spend half the day shampooing it and the other half picking out the knots in it as they try to figure out how to keep you from falling asleep on it."
"Why don't you put your hair in a braid? Let's see how much you like it."
Serenely crossing the sections of hair over, Alair said, "If I had my hair as long as you do, I would. I'd catch the morning dew in my hair, and when I met my special someone someday, he could untie my hair, tilt my head up, and kiss me at my most beautiful."
A wistful pair of sighs followed the romantic image Alair had conjured up. Her hands continued braiding as she glanced at Thea, specifically at the bump that was beginning to show. "It's possible you skipped a step or two."
Crimson flooded the green-haired girl's face. "I did not skip a step!"
"Don't pick on her, Alair."
"In public, you may be Laya, and I will honor you as is your due. But like this, you're-"
She had been on the verge of saying "Sahana," but the imperious glare in the mirror froze her. Alair abruptly remembered just how sacred that name was. For a heartbeat, her memory overrode her vision, and the one whose eyes commanded her to silence were not Sahana's, but Laya's. Vision and memory overlapped until it made her dizzy.
"...you're the little sister I scolded and played with, whose hair I brushed and washed and braided even as we shared our dreams," she concluded as she resumed braiding the long, golden hair.
Laya left as gratitude and affection shone in Sahana's eyes. "You dreamed of commanding Laya's bodyguard and being a great hero like Aina Le Cille," Sahana said with a smile.
"Which I still insist was more interesting than your dreams, little miss housewife. All you ever dreamed of was a loving husband and beautiful children in a happy family life."
"Just because you can't even boil water doesn't mean I'm a housewife," Sahana said pacifically.
Alair snorted. "A princess classic that can cook is a housewife."
Sahana mimicked her tone exactly. "Tomboy."
Giggles interrupted their exchange. They both turned to look at Thea. Her hand over her mouth, the shorter woman shook her head before she spoke. "You two... you really do act like sisters."
Alair harrumphed as she finished tying Sahana's braid and secured it. "I've been stuck with her almost since she was born."
"What she's trying to say is that she's been bossing me around since before I could even crawl."
"I wouldn't have expected that," Thea said.
As she tugged on the braid to loosen it a bit, Alair eyed Thea out of the corner of her eye. The Shusorani princess had her eyes slightly averted to avoid meeting Laya's eyes head on. It was something everyone did when confronted with those otherworldly eyes, but Alair had gotten used to them long ago. Still, it was an improvement over the worship that had been in her eyes before. "Expected or not, I'm glad she's here."
A shadow crossed Sahana's face. Before Alair could ask about it, Thea spoke again. "Was that really your dream as a girl...Laya? Just having a husband and children?"
Her expression soft and reflective, Sahana said, "Every woman wishes to love someone, have a family, and die peacefully. That's really all I ever dreamed for. My ideal was my sister. I want to be as strong and as perfect as she was. But my ambition-"
"Damn it all, Alair, are you in here?"
With as much delicacy as a Mammoth in a glass house, Lune barged into Thea's quarters. Alair made a wry expression, but before she could say anything, Thea stood up and marched right into her brother's path as the pneumatic door closed behind him.
"What in Laya's name do you think you're doing, Lune?"
Lune's expression became confused. "What I'm doing? I'm-"
"You're in my quarters! Without asking!"
"There are rules, Lune! Royal protocol! I am the Princess of Shusoran, not a mistress! If you want entry to my quarters, you ask first! Ask! Then I will decide if I want to let you in! And if I don't give you permission, you respect that and leave! And you certainly don't ask for another woman in my room!"
Her tiny frame worth about a third of Lune's muscular bulk, Thea stood in front of the confused Lune, her arms crossed under her breasts as she yelled up at him. The picture was enough to make Alair crow with laughter. "You haven't been having much luck with your fights with women lately, have you, big brother?"
Lune scowled in her direction. Then he saw Sahana. A glance at the golden-haired girl made Alair correct herself. The person Lune saw was Laya in all her power, a woman who issued commands and expected to be obeyed. Lune paled.
"I am sorry, Thea," he managed, his voice a bit strained. "I did not wish to upset you. I just didn't think."
Thea glared up at him. "Go outside and try again."
Looking a little chastised, Lune withdrew. The intercom hummed as its accompanying light blinked, but Thea did not go to it immediately. It seemed like the princess was counting.
"Trying to housebreak him?" Alair asked.
A frown appeared on that pretty face. "In a manner of speaking, yes."
"Good luck," Sahana said.
"Thank you, I do believe I need it," Thea said. Her countdown completed, she gracefully walked over to the intercom and pressed the speak button. "Yes?"
"Can I come in?"
There was an extended pause as Thea made him wait. At length, Thea said, "You may enter, my lord."
The door whirred open. Thea crossed her arms as Lune entered. They stared each other for a few seconds before Lune leaned down and kissed Thea's cheek. Several more tense seconds passed before Thea finally relented and smiled. "Much better. What was it that you wanted to talk to Alair about?"
Momentarily relieved, Lune turned to Alair, his expression once again strained. "Those Elysian idiots want you to marry the Orakian brat."
Alair and Sahana asked the question in unison. They shared a surprised look before they jointly turned their gazes on Lune.
"What do you mean, they want me to marry...Nial? What is going on?"
Lune paced up and down, his displeasure obvious. "Those idiots don't think I'll keep my word. They want you to marry Nial as proof of it."
Ever since he had accepted Sahana...Laya as his overlord, Lune had been negotiating to end the war. Ryan negotiated on behalf of his rebels, Nial for Landen and Satera, and the King of Divisia had been summoned to represent his own domain. Glad not to be involved, Alair was aware that things were progressing as smoothly as could be expected, given the personalities involved.
Not that she was surprised they had chosen to negotiate personally. This was only the second time peace had been made between Layans and Orakians. While it might have been better for all sides if negotiators had been used, intermediaries took too long and had room to distort the matter out of recognition.
"I think it's reasonable."
All eyes turned to Thea. The Shusorani princess looked puzzled at the attention. "Was it something I said?"
"How is it reasonable to force Alair to marry that Orakian barbarian?" Lune demanded.
"It's an arranged marriage. It's the norm for noble blood."
Alair laughed at that. "Unlike you, I'm not a princess, Thea."
"You're wrong, you know," Thea said quite calmly.
"How am I wrong? I'm just a soldier, born on an ice planet, nothing special."
"You're the sister of a legendary hero, Alair. I'm descended from Aina Le Cille, but that's just it - I'm descended from her. My lineage ultimately starts with her. You are already the origin of a lineage. No one came before you. Your blood is the noblest the Alisa III has to offer with only a single exception."
Thea glanced at Sahana, but did not elaborate. Instead, she returned to her earlier theme. "When nobles agree to a mutually beneficial exchange, they seal the pact with an arranged marriage. The goal is to create children as a long-term common interest to both factions involved. The sooner the children come, the better, as it makes difficult, if not impossible, to betray the other side."
"This is beyond mutually beneficial; it's the official end of war between Layans and Orakians, blessed by Laya herself and brought about by none other than Lune. It won't end wars between kingdoms... but it will end the constant state of war between our two peoples."
"Something so revolutionary requires a marriage alliance. The accord King Rhys helped create between Cille and Shusoran and Agoe probably failed in the long run because a marriage was not arranged. It was deemed too much by everyone involved, which might be why Agoe gave aid to...to..."
Thea began to breathe raggedly. The annihilation of her homeland and her subsequent imprisonment had left her health severely weakened; part of the reason Alair had brought Thea here had been to keep her company on one of her weak days. It was clear discussing something so close to it had begun a panic attack.
In a rare moment of sensitivity, Lune put an arm over Thea's shoulders and brought her into a gentle embrace and murmured soft reassurance. Alair watched silently as the tiny princess' breathing slowly returned to normal.
"Thank you," Thea said softly before she turned in place, staying within the perceived safety of Lune's arms. "Well, that's what they're thinking, and I don't think there's much room for argument."
"An arranged marriage, huh?" Alair said unhappily. "Whatever happened to freedom and the power of love?"
The skewering look Thea gave her was such a complete surprise that Alair actually took a step back. "Love is to be esteemed highly, but it is supposed to be a product of marriage, not a cause. As for freedom, you can refuse, if that is your desire, but do not forget what will fall apart if you reject your duty."
Lune grunted. "Well, at least it makes more sense now that you explained it, Thea." Her brother looked at her, his expression pensive. "I told those idiots I would ask you to see what you thought of it. I made it clear you would be the one to decide it, not me. Don't worry too much about the peace deal. I'm sure I can give them something else just as good in their eyes as this marriage business. Even if you do agree to it, I'm not letting you get dragged to Landen. I don't know how, but I'll make it so he stays here."
Alair sat down and stared at the floor as she thought. She was not really thrilled at the idea of marrying someone she didn't love. He had rescued her from Divisia's dungeon, true, but that didn't come with a "fall in love with rescuer" requirement. Sure, he was good-looking, with a strong jaw and broad shoulders, but looks only went so far.
Don't forget what will fall apart...
Thea's words pricked her. They both wanted a world of peace. If her marrying Nial would solidify it... and it wasn't like the Orakian prince was an utter boor, either. She'd have to talk to him more in the coming days to make sure, but for now, it seemed like they weren't incompatible. That was a good first step, but she wasn't going to leap head-first into this without being satisfied in her own mind that such a marriage wouldn't be a disaster.
Still, it rankled her to have something so important handled like this. "Only if he asks me."
Lune frowned in confusion. "What?"
"If I agree to this, and that's a very big if, he'll have to ask me to marry him. I'm not in the business of doing these things via third-parties."
The sound of pneumatics filled the room. Alair looked up in surprise. "Sa-...Laya?"
Sahana exited without a word.