She was, beyond any shadow of a doubt, completely and absolutely lost.
Laya sighed inaudibly as she tried to orient herself. No matter how many centuries passed, it seemed that Dahlia would always thwart her. The innards of the ancient ship were a uniform gunmetal gray, a tangle of identical corridors and intersections. Try though she might, she never knew where her quarters were, since every door looked exactly like the others.
Worse, she could not ask for directions. The mystique of Laya demanded that she walk coolly, confidently, that she appear to know exactly where she was going and exactly what she would do when she arrived. She had lost track of how many times she had imperiously strode past Lune's guards as they did their best to both pay obeisance and keep watch simultaneously, even as she ignored the impulse to ask where her rooms were.
She had inherited the mantle of a great legend she had to preserve in all ways, large and small. Being lost was a small price to pay to protect that dignity. Or so she told herself. At least she had a beacon. The little device would sound when she was by her quarters. Large as Dahlia was, there was only so much space. She'd find her rooms eventually.
That was the theory, at least.
Still, she should probably cherish this feeling, negative though it was. It was likely one of the last things she would feel for centuries. She resolutely walked forward, trying not to think of what waited for her as patiently as the world waited for the sun to rise. The unwanted thoughts came anyway.
Laya had decided to return to cold sleep. As soon as Lune finished the negotiations and all the parties agreed to the terms, she would leave Dahlia and go to Mystoke. She would prepare them once again for her return, however far into the future that was, and resume the hibernation her sister had put her in Aridia's secret world.
As she lacked her sister's power to see through the mist of time, Laya had made a simple plan to accommodate the vagaries of fate: she would create a legend. The seed of it was simple; Laya was asleep in a secret world, and would be reawakened in the world's greatest time of need.
She was fairly confident in the story's potential. Its essence was simple enough that centuries would pass without it getting too distorted in Lune's domains, while the existence of Lune's family line meant the secret of where she slept would not be forgotten. Whatever calamity her sister had foreseen that required Laya would be met by Laya.
Her problem, of course, was that she didn't know when the problem would come. Laya was only certain that it was definitely not Lune. That wasn't a slight on the Esper warlord, just fact - brutal though he was, Lune was not the sort of threat that would make her sister throw her into hibernation. The only clue she really had to go off of was that their enemy was "an evil force from times beyond legend." Not the most helpful of hints, but she trusted her sister and her visions.
Everyone knew of her decision, of course. Almost everyone had meekly complied with the will of Laya, except for two very noticeable exceptions. Alair and Nial had objected vociferously, determined to change her mind. They individually argued that the fact that nothing had happened since she had been put to sleep meant that the threat was no more. Laya had been so curt with Alair in their last fight that the only way she could think of to show she held no hard feelings had been to ask her childhood friend to brush her hair.
Her abrupt departure had nothing to do with their previous fight. So far as Laya was concerned, and notwithstanding her near-slip, Alair was the same slightly-older sister figure she had always been. It was a treasure beyond price to have even one person to be Sahana with, let alone two. Once she went to sleep, the number of people in the world who knew the girl and not the title would diminish to none. As disquieting as that thought was, it was not what drove her out.
No, what had upset her was the talk of Alair getting married. It had been all she could bear to ignore the envy she felt for Thea. The green-haired girl had a husband, a child on the way, and whatever physical weaknesses she had, she had a home. In short, she had everything Laya wanted. For Lune to talk about Alair getting married, arranged or not, and... and for Alair to consider it, she who had devoted her ambition to becoming a warrior... Laya already fell short of the unattainable ideal that was her big sister, and now for what she wanted most in life to be seen by her best friend as a burden instead of the wonder it was...
It hurt her. No, more than hurt, it twisted her heart into knots and ripped them straight out of her body. As Laya, she was supposed to abandon those dreams, but had she not been born from a similar dream? Her mother had been Laya and had loved a mere hunter for at least eighteen years, resulting in the birth of her big sister and her. Didn't that mean it was alright? Had not her sister blessed her and asked the Great Goddess to grant her a happy family life? Surely, Laya could be allowed Sahana's wish to love and be loved for herself?
It wasn't fair. Her best friend would have what Laya wanted when Alair did not appreciate it or even desire it. She would be married to Nial, would have his babies, would be with him for the rest of her li—
Laya froze in her tracks as she actually heard what she was thinking. With a start, she realized she was not merely envious, but jealous. While most people used the two words interchangeably, her big sister taught her that envy was the desire for something one did not have, whereas jealousy was the fear of losing that something. She was jealous of Alair, but...
Did that mean that she... liked Nial?
Her heart beat a staccato rhythm as she looked up from her contemplation and straight at Nial. There were bags under his eyes and his face was tight with exhaustion, but his smile... it was wonderful and just for her. It filled his face with kindness and humor and intelligence, a smile so sincere it uplifted her entire being. Her lips responded to his warmth and broke out into a smile before she could even think about it. When thought caught up, shock diffused across her mind. Before he could say another word, she turned and fled.
It felt like she was halfway across the ship before her mind asked her something it should have asked the moment she ran away. Why did I do that?
That disturbed her. What is wrong with me?
"You look like a teenager on the verge of her first epiphany."
The familiar tone provoked a hot spike of anger. Laya regally turned to reprimand the presumptuous fool who dared speak to her in such a manner. Her voice was cold enough to freeze the eternal fires of the Alisa III's engines. "Know your place."
What appeared to be a young, pretty woman with dark red hair stood at the entrance to the shuttle bay. She wore a brown travel cloak over her crimson leotard and long scarlet boots. Slung diagonally across her torso was a bulging courier pouch. Blue eyes regarded her neutrally. "The resemblance to your sister is striking."
It was pointless to stare down a machine, so Laya dismissed her from her mind without even a glance. She looked out at the shuttle bay, half-aware of the redoubled activity as the Dahlians noticed her presence and redoubled their efforts. If she was here, then it wouldn't be odd for her to use a terminal. She could even make it appear like she was electronically confirming the safe return of Lune's soldiers while she tried to make the device produce a layout of Dahlia. Then she would be able to find a way back to her quarters...
"...well then. If you'll pardon me, Laya, do you know if Nial is back in his quarters?"
Or she could follow the impertinent android back, since Nial's billet was right across from her lodging. "I believe so. The dispatches are important, then?"
"Aren't they all?"
As negotiations dragged on, Mieu had been given the unenviable task of messenger. Nial sent the android on frequent trips to Divisia and Landen to soothe the agitated Orakians. On top of diplomacy, Mieu was obliged to carry letters between the King of Divisia and his subjects, and between Nial and his parents. Laya knew that the majority of the contents in that bag would be for the Divisian King, but...
The combat machine moved to enter the ship. Without hesitation, Laya followed after her. Mieu glanced at her, but said nothing. "What are Nial's parents like?"
"Rhys used to be a hothead, though he's mellowed in his old age," Mieu replied with the candid familiarity of an old retainer. "Don't think he's gone to seed, though; he's still one of the fiercest swordsmen I've ever seen. Not as deadly as Lord Orakio, but I don't think my master would have been ashamed to see his performance. Lena's a sweet little thing, barely reaches up to Nial's navel, but she's very strong. Not physically, though she's very handy with a pair of daggers, but emotionally. They got together under...unusual circumstances, but they enjoy a very strong marriage regardless. They're partners; they reinforce each other's strengths and cover each other's weaknesses. Even with his numerical advantage, I think Lune would not have been able to beat those two."
A very strong marriage... Laya suppressed the pang of envy that filled her. "Does Nial take after his mother?"
"Hmm, he inherited her liveliness, I think. His nature is calmer than his father's, certainly, though I wouldn't say he's without a temper. It shows up less often as he gets older, but it was quite bad when he was young."
He has a temper? "What was he like when he was young?"
A fond smile appeared on Mieu's face. "I'd call him a bully hunter."
Mieu shrugged as her smile widened. "A bully hunter. He'd pick fights with the noble children who tormented others. He always reprimanded them for not acting like a true knight. When they thought no one was watching, they would try to get even with him, but Nial is no slouch. Even when he was outnumbered, he fought like he thought a true knight should, honorable and beyond reproach. Lena used to get so upset with him when he came back bruised like that! Rhys was proud of him, though, for always standing his ground. That's the difference between mothers and fathers, of course."
Laya felt a smile tugging at her lips as she pictured the child Nial coming into the presence of his mother, battered, bruised, yet filled with the particular pride of a little boy who was certain he had done the right thing. "So he has wanted to be a true knight since then?"
"Oh yes. He admires his father greatly. That ideal of a true knight was born from there. He's grown a bit, but I am certain that childhood dream still influences him."
Chivalry, integrity, dedication, and always doing the right thing, these are the essentials of being a true knight. That's my ideal.
"You like him, don't you?"
The unexpected attack caused Laya to miss a step. "What?"
Mieu met her look with a single upturned eyebrow. "I have kept watch over Nial since he was a little boy. Ryan did not notice when you relaxed, but I did."
Embarrassment quickly turned into defiance. "What if I do?"
"Nothing. You've already decided to go back to sleep," Mieu said calmly.
They continued on in silence. Laya bit her lip. She had decided to go back to sleep. Nothing truly tied her here. There would be peace after a millennium of war. The threat her sister had foreseen would be met by Laya. Alair would be fine. Nial would be fine. She wasn't necessary right now. The duty she owed her elder sister was more important. She should spread her wings and fly toward that threat with all of her strength.
So why was it that she kept wishing for something different? Why did she keep wishing to see if she could have her dream?
Why did she keep thinking that she should have it with Nial?
It was absurd. It was just a little bubble of happiness, something built by being in close contact with him that would probably fade if she wasn't near him. She admired Nial. He was handsome, he was kind, he was strong, and he was gentle. But how was something permanent supposed to be born from that? She was young. She was too young to know what love was...wasn't she? Regardless, it would be utter foolishness to entrust the future to the whims of feelings.
May the Great Goddess lead and bring to thee the husband whom thy heart desires. May this be thy gift to her, O Goddess!
Live happily ever after, my treasure. I love you.
Twin memories intruded. Her sister's voice as she blessed an innocent child, her sister's voice as a maiden was put into cold sleep while the enemy from times beyond legend attacked. Sahana had been blessed twice over, once by Laya and once by Kalika. Even if they were separated by a thousand years, her sister had promised to protect her. Not even time could hope to stand against the blessings she had been given. Even if it was utter foolishness...
"Mieu, what does Nial like?"
The redheaded android looked at her with a frown. "What does he like? Well, if you're asking about food, he's not too picky an eater. He certainly loves music, but you're going to have to be a bit more specific with that question."
Perfect. "Mieu, I want to ask your help in something."
It was foolish. It was emotional. It was not fitting of a Laya, and she would have to beg forgiveness for it later. But even so, she would pursue these feelings and get an answer.