"I've lost track of how many days we've been at this," Nial said tiredly.
"Too many," Ryan grunted.
The Layan knight had his feet up on the metal table, his green mantle nowhere in sight, his body as slack as if every bone in his body had been removed. His chin was on his chest, so the words were slightly muffled, but the exhaustion was easily heard. Not that Nial was much better; his body was slumped forward, his arms were crossed on the table, and his head was on his arms.
Nial stared at the grayish-brown walls. Laya had commented that the color was supposed to be soothing. Personally, he found it incredibly boring. "I hate negotiations."
The answering grunt was more eloquent than the most oratorically-gifted villain pleading his innocence before his king could hope to be. It had been hopelessly naive of him to think that negotiating a peace would be a simple matter. The list of things that needed to be gone over seemed to grow every day, ranging from reparations to land grants to border adjustments, and more besides. Every time something was brought up, an... aggressive discussion took place that might or might not be resolved that day.
"At least we finally decided on hierarchy," Nial continued.
"I did manage to get you out from directly under Lune, you have to grant me that."
"I get stuck with his sister instead. Great."
"Who is now in charge of Aerone, so you, in theory, get to avoid Lune most of the time. At least you get your family estates back."
"Only because Lune hadn't had the time to give them to someone else."
"Your depression is contagious."
Today's discussion had involved vassalage. At least, that was how Nial understood it. In essence, the warlord wanted the Divisian King and Ryan on very short leashes. As far as Lune was concerned, the recent conflicts were their faults, the former for being a weakling, the latter for fostering treasonous rebellion. Lune had wanted them both directly under his thumb; hours of negotiation had managed to create adequate terms the four of them could agree on. Nial made the effort to lift his head off the table. He opened the notebook and examined his notes, just to confirm what they had agreed on.
The expanded fief of Aerone belongs to Alair Kay Eshyr, titled Exarch, elevated to the military rank of legate, with command of the Dahlian garrison and overlord of the vassals designated. Ryan Ka Shiumu is appointed Prefect of Aerone and knight of honor to Exarch Alair Kay Eshyr. His House's traditional estates are restored to him. The Crown of Gran Direha submits to King Nial Sa Riik. Nial Sa Riik is recognized as Suzerain of Divisia. Tribute will be determined after boundary determination.
There was only one slight problem: Nial was not a king.
He understood why the agreement had been framed that way, of course. Lune had insisted that if the Divisian King was not going to be answerable to him, then he would have to be answerable to Nial. Gran Direha had been offended at the indignity of a king bowing before a prince, descendant of Orakio or not. The only way to prevent the complete collapse of the talks had been to offer the suggestion that Nial would be elevated to kingship. It all made sense.
On the surface, at least. There were undercurrents for why things had been arranged thus. He was already mentally composing the letter to his father about that.
Ryan spoke. "Well, suppose I shouldn't bitch too much. You're the one who has to marry her."
A shrug was the only response he gave. Arranged marriages were just a fact of life for them. A union between Layan and Orakian had been raised by the Divisian King as a way to seal the entire agreement, whenever it was finally finished, with the designated surrogates Alair and himself.
Ever since Lune had returned to their meetings with a vaguely affirmative answer, Nial had been spending time with Alair. Supervised by Thea, of all people! Everyone had been certain that all of the Shusorani and Cille had been wiped out, but to find his childhood playmate safe and in good health had been one more shock on a journey filled with them.
Time spent with Alair had proven positive. To his good fortune, she was not any of the following: an Ogress, a shrew, a harridan, a boor or a bore. She had many superlative qualities, like her intelligence, her strength, her toughness, her courage... though it was more than a little unsettling to have her calmly walk up to a Layan war beast and treat it like an oversized Chirper. They got along well. A marriage between them would not founder on incompatibility.
So why was he so uneasy about it?
Why was it that when he thought of blue eyes, he saw two exotic orbs leading to an otherworld?
"I may have said that, but don't take it to heart," Ryan said suddenly.
Nial shook his head as he slowly dragged himself to his feet. "What?"
"I get hunches sometimes. Like when I saw you in the cave and knew you let Alair out. I have a hunch you're not marrying Alair."
"What, are you clairvoyant?"
"Nothing that impressive. Just an old soldier with good hunches. Hungry?"
Nial wrinkled his nose. The food they were provided had grown worse since their arrival. Nial suspected it was a sort of subtle pressure from Lune to push them to agree with him quicker. Ryan seemed indifferent to the slop they were served, but there was a limit to how much bad food Nial could eat in a single day. "Not right now. I plan to take a nap."
As the door automatically slid out of their way, they parted, Ryan headed for the cafeteria, Nial to his room. The sharp smell of harsh chemicals assailed his nose as he walked down the monotonous hallway. Around one grayish-brown corner, he saw the source of the stench: cleaning crews dressed in the one-piece brownish-gray clothing that seemed to be the only form of dress on Dahlia. The only exceptions seemed to be those born in the seven worlds, like Thea.
Reflex kicked in faster than thought as Nial shook his head. Its name is the Alisa III, after an ancient queen. It's a spaceship to sail across the emptiness between stars.
The seven worlds were created by Orakio, but that wasn't all of it. The seven worlds were a single ship to sail across the stars, without a destination. Or so it seemed to him, but he still hadn't managed to wrap his head around such an idea. It was all so... immense.
It didn't help that no one had explained it further for him. The Dahlians were all hostile to him, so his questions were met with blank stares of hostility. Understandable since he was the Orakian who had defeated their undefeated master. He had already heard mutters about ambushing the "strongest Orakian." It took him a little while to realize they were talking about him.
Nial turned left at the next intersection, the one that lead to his quarters, deep in thought. The truth of it was that he should have been dead, plain and simple. Lune was a fierce opponent, a warrior who combined weapon mastery with magic. That fight had been the greatest of his life, one that he only managed to win because of Laya.
They had fought as one. There had been virtually no need to speak to each other during that battle. He had been aware of her as she had been of him. But it was only after he had stepped into the way of Lune's attack on Laya, only after he thought about what he had done, that he truly realized what was going on in his heart.
He was in love with Laya.
The woman he loved wasn't Laya the holy woman, Laya the ruler, Laya the sorceress queen. The woman who forced Lune himself to submit was impressive, but it wasn't the real Laya. He paused outside his door and looked at the one directly across from it.
No, the real Laya was the girl who played in the snow with him, the girl who was always at his side, who teased him, the girl who idealized her sister, the girl who did her best with the heavy burden her sister had left behind for her. The real Laya was the girl who sang.
He turned his attention to the little plastic square and its array of letters and numbers and began to put in the code to open the door.
His heart suddenly raced at that familiar voice. He tried to make his movements casual as he turned around.
Would he ever get used to looking at her? Her fine, delicate features were almost too perfect to have been made by nature. Had he been told that she had once been a stature made of gold, alabaster, and roses that had been brought to life, he would have believed it. Her hair was in an appealing braid, though he far preferred it when her long hair was loose and framing her face. The oval perfection of her face had two landmarks to draw the eye. The first was the blood-red ruby that rested on the middle of her forehead; the second was the perfect flower of her lips.
Laya’s concern brought him back to reality. He felt heat boil his cheeks as he hoped he was not blushing. "Y-yes?"
"I know you're tired, but would you like to keep me company?"
They had not spent much time together in at least a week. Ever since Laya had announced her intention to return to the world under Aridia, Nial had been desperately trying to change her mind. He had summoned every bit of persuasive art he owned in speeches and arguments that would have made the greatest orator jealous.
Unfortunately, the harder he tried to change her mind, the more annoyed she became. The last time they had been in each other's company, they hadn't even talked: Laya had stared past him in stony silence even as he tried to talk to her. She had been avoiding him ever since. If this invitation meant he was forgiven, then he would keep his mouth shut for the moment. He had until the coffin lid came down and put her back to sleep to change her mind. For now, he would simply enjoy her company.
Across the threshold, a gentle aroma caressed him. It was one of those mysteries, how a woman who occupied a room enough imprinted her scent on them. Or perhaps he was just extra-sensitive to Laya’s smell? Blossoms...
"Is everything going well in your negotiations?" Laya asked.
"Well enough, I suppose," Nial said as pleasure filled him along with her scent.
"Please get comfortable. Lune is giving you a hard time?"
Nial sat in a chair facing her. "Well, not just him. We're all giving each other difficult times. Though Lune is using his unfair advantage as host to the hilt."
A frown marred that perfect face. Nial stomped on the urge to cross the distance and kiss her brow. "What do you mean, Nial?"
"What we're being fed has gone from bad to worse. I'd almost rather eat what his monsters in their kennels are getting."
"Are you sure that's not what you're already eating?" Laya asked with a mischievous smile.
It was Nial's turn to frown. "If that's what he feeds them, it's a wonder they haven't tried to eat him."
Her giggles sounded as pretty as the chiming of bells. "I think they'd have a hard time stomaching him."
Silent mirth shook him before he joined Laya in genuine laughter. It saddened him to think that she was so determined to leave behind the joys they shared now for eternal sleep. He hated to ruin such a fragile moment, but...
"I wrote a song recently. Mieu helped me compose it. Would you like to hear it?"
Nial blinked in surprise. To hear Laya’s singing... he looked around. "I would love to, but... I don't see any instruments?"
Laya laughed. "You'll have to settle for a recording of the instrumental."
"Recording? Instrumental?" he asked in confusion.
"Never mind, never mind. Just listen until the end, and then tell me what you think."
She rose from her seat, her movements as smooth and beautiful as a leaf dancing in the wind. As she crossed toward a nearby console, Nial was struck with how her outfit enhanced her femininity. Her white boots ended well above the knee, while her pink tunic, cut similarly to the one worn by Lune's archers, ended a few inches above those boots. She wore a diaphanous sheet of fabric that ended above her knees from the front and extended like a cape to just above her ankles in the back. The effortless elegance stole his breath away.
Laya must have activated something, as music slowly filled the room. Somehow, he felt tense as Laya walked toward him, her eyes closed, her voice silent.
Then she began to sing.
"Everyone calls me a holy woman
It's such a great burden, but I do my best to live up to it
The weight on my shoulders is not felt within my heart
so my feelings have grown wings and soar through the sky
Fear, sorrow, melancholy, longing, loneliness... Laya's powerful voice washed over him and filled his heart with her emotions. Even as he was mesmerized by the beauty of her voice, Nial understood that the song came from deep within her, from the real Laya. She was telling him something important he had to hear, something that he had to understand.
"Encountering you was all that it took to leave me shaken and to make my wings lose their way
I am exposed to the unkind rain, my poor wings are wet, I cannot fly this way
Fly away, for another day.
"Call for me with your voice and surely I will not leave"
I have no regrets, except for my secret love
Startled, Nial tried to speak, but the words froze on his tongue when Laya opened her eyes and looked at him. Those solitary eyes were the gateways to another world, her world.
They were the gateways to her soul. She turned her gaze away from him; he felt a curious sense of loss.
"Tell me that you love me, but for now I ask you, say not another word
I must not return to endless dreams
"I'm here I'm here,
Here's where I am, now I sing for you alone.
Right here, there's no fear.
Laya's voice had a power beyond any Nial had ever heard before. It was easily stronger than the magic he had seen her use during her journey, but not because it destroyed or healed. Its strength came from the depths of her passion, from the sincerity of her feelings. Her song reached through the barrier of self that separated people and united them through their hearts. Suddenly, she looked into his eyes again.
"The truth is so simple, so sure. I love you.
My braid is yours alone to untie. The morning dew is in my hair and all my trust is in your hands
Once again, she looked away. Suddenly, he thought of something. What if he was mistaken?
"I was always alone after I met you, since all I wanted was for you to love me
I want to be at your side and watch the sun rise together, our dreams in union to create the future
What if Laya didn't unite all people who heard her voice but...
"Where are you? Do you love?
Fall into the end of the World
Beloved, I realize I feel you in my soul
What if she only united him and her?
"Give me your hand and pull me away from eternity
Help me fly straight toward you."
Silence filled the room as her song ended. Nial stood and crossed the distance between them. He fell to one knee before her. "I am just a knight. You're a demigoddess. Still, I ask. Stay. Marry me. I love you."
Laya fell to her knees. Her head rested on his shoulder. "Dummy."
Before he could ask why, he found himself lost in the sweetness of her lips.