Frigid wind howled before it returned to a soft whisper. The world outside was a blinding landscape of white as daylight shone on newly deposited snow. Farther away, a thick forest of tall pines stood silently, a patient sign of green life in a harsh winter world.
Mieu took a deep breath of the icy air as she sat on her rock. Her master had once said that the cold possessed a scent akin to a blade's edge. She had never understood how a state of temperature could have a smell, but she had never questioned it. Before now, at least.
Once again, she took in the chill of winter through her nose, her olfactory sensors as sensitive as any Palman's. More so, as she was capable of detecting subtle poisons and gases that would be fatal to her creators. Try as she might, however, she could not catch a scent that made her think of a blade's edge. She smelled water and pine, but nothing metallic. Was it something that only a mortal warlord like Lord Orakio could detect? Or had the scent faded over the centuries due to the enforced cessation of hostilities?
Mieu recalled the words she had heard in the Castle of Silence and still could not understand. Nothing in her knowledge of Palman history remotely even approached the description of an "evil force from times beyond legend." Her cursory knowledge of Palman mythology had a few candidates, but myths were just stories based on fantasy and imagination. No such thing could possibly exist!
...except when it could.
That was part of her problem. The Devastation War had ended, not because of victory or mutual annihilation, but because her master and his rival had jointly sealed the seven worlds away from each other. And there was no doubt they had to have done it together: the barriers that cut off the transport framework were made by a great and powerful something. Only Laya, Lord Orakio's enemy, had had that kind of power. Laya's followers had called their leader's power magic, something Mieu's comrades had dismissed as a mere exaggeration of the hard science of Techniques, a maneuver intended to sap Orakian morale.
The problem with her comrades' logic was that magic was real. The things Mieu had witnessed in the Castle of Silence provided undeniable testimony. No Techniques could have created trials that could patiently wait a millennium to test Laya's heir, a slip of a girl who had spent that time asleep in a secret world in Aridia.
Only Lord Orakio could have provided Laya with such a place to hide her younger sister.
Bright laughter, as clear as tinkling bells, carried through the clear air. Mieu turned her head and looked down from her vantage point.
A short distance away, in a bowl-shaped section of the mountain, a great duel was being played out. She could see her charge, Nial, in the middle of it, his clothes and his brown hair liberally dusted with snow. Somewhere within was a woman whose magic probably made her the single most powerful individual in the seven worlds. It should be the sort of clash that would inspire bards to rip off the tale and embroider it for a hundred years, an Orakian knight with his trusty sword against a Layan wizardess with her indefinable magic, with victory in the lap of fate.
The weapons of choice? Snowballs.
From the looks of it, Laya was in control of the game, one it was obvious she had played since childhood. Her white cloak allowed her to vanish into the landscape right before Nial's eyes. Even when she revealed herself and Nial seemed on the verge of scoring a hit, suspiciously propitious snow-laden winds suddenly obstructed visibility. By the time Nial was able to raise his head, his target had already vanished.
Still, even though he was indisputably the loser of the match, Nial was enjoying himself greatly. He had been smiling since the beginning of the game even as he laughed at every hit Laya scored. Mieu had not seen him smile since before Satera's fall, let alone having fun. It relieved her that he had healed, even if only a little.
"I got you!"
Laya tackled Nial from behind. Her sneak attack succeeded in bringing down the larger and bulkier prince, who ended up with his face in the snow. However, it seemed that Nial had expected the assault; before Laya could flee and once again vanish into the snow, he had captured her in a bear hug. They rolled in the snow, laughing, as Laya tried to squirm away and Nial attempted to prevent her escape.
This was the person Mieu suspected was the "real" Laya.
Ever since they had found the girl in Aridia, she had kept all of them at arm's length. No, that wasn't accurate. It was more like a gaping chasm surrounded her and cut off her existence from anyone else's. Those who attempted to cross the gap were struck down and left to fall into the abyss.
During those early days, the blonde girl reminded Mieu of the original Laya. Untouchable, unknowable, unreachable, Lord Orakio's imperious enemy had been a foe to be feared. Laya's appearance on a field of battle was enough to inspire her forces and turn the tide against Orakian armies, to say nothing of the havoc her powers could wreak. By all accounts, the woman had been an unstoppable force of nature; as Mieu had never actually met the little sister, she had thought this younger edition to be another such.
However, there had been a definite change since Laya had passed the tests her elder sister had left behind for her. Not an open one, of course. It was a change limited to when she thought no one was watching her, and even then occurred only before Nial. During those unguarded moments, she was like any other girl her age.
"Ah, have you seen the alteza?"
Mieu looked over her shoulder. Her questioner, a lavender-haired young woman, wore thick woolen clothes dyed a golden color, but lacked her usual metal cuirass. Her brow bore a fine golden tiara with a blue sapphire as large as a thumbnail set at its center. No older than Nial, the girl was very pretty, but she was no match for Laya in looks.
"She is over there." Mieu gestured to the mountain alcove, where Nial and Laya stood facing each other, panting. It seemed Laya had succeeded in escaping.
"Thank you," the shousa of the Kensai said before she sighed. The lavender-haired girl visibly steeled herself as she approached them.
The original Laya's followers had revered her as something more than human, an unfortunate phenomenon that her master had also suffered. No matter how Lord Orakio had attempted to suppress the religious frenzy that had him at its center, his followers continued to try to force godhood on him. All the reports Mieu had seen indicated that Laya had suffered similarly, and in the end, once they were safely dead, both leaders had been deified.
Mieu had had twenty years to observe how the Orakians of today interacted with House Sa Riik, the physical legacy of her master. In Landen, it was a relationship of first amongst equals, at best, as the nobles jockeyed for position, even if it was at the expense of their overlords, the seed of their god. In other Orakian lands, the position meant instant respect, along with pleas for salvation or approval. Basically, the Orakians wanted their god to work for them, and demanded his descendants assume that agency.
In contrast, the Layans did not. Once Laya had arrived in Mystoke and taken possession of the Castle of Silence, word had spread throughout Frigidia with the uncanny speed Palmans shared news. Every Layan they had encountered had displayed the utmost deference to her. Even the cynical Layan knight from Elysium basically fell to his knees whenever Laya said something. From what Mieu had seen, the only thing Layans asked from the blonde girl was her blessing.
The Kensai in particular venerated the younger Laya. An embassy of the half-savage women had encountered their party as they had journeyed north and entreated Laya to visit their shousa's stronghold. The girl had agreed readily enough... well, more like imperially enough. The Kensai had fallen over themselves to please Laya, even though she had not expressed any explicit wishes and kept herself as aloof from them as she did from her own traveling companions. The shousa herself had glumly given up her "claim" on Nial when she saw how closely Laya hovered over him, even though the girl had only looked perplexed at lavender-haired girl's statement. That brought Mieu to the crux of her problem.
Laya had still not made her intentions clear. Nial assumed the girl would order Lune to stop his aggression, but what if she didn't? The dedication the Layans of Frigidia displayed toward Laya was alarming; it easily matched, if not exceeded, the powerful irrationality that had driven both sides to deify their leaders. All it needed was for Laya to play the role of figurehead and unite Lune's faction with Ryan's, bring the Kensai and other Frigidians under her banner, and Landen's cause would become hopeless. If Laya actually gave the order to fight, the destruction could exceed the worst of the Devastation War. Her master's descendants would end up wiped out in a religious frenzy of bloodshed and hatred.
I could kill her.
It was such a simple solution. MIEUs were designed to look as Palman as possible. More importantly, as a machine, she was not bound by Orakio's Law against killing. She could slit Laya's throat, infiltrate Lune's headquarters, and kill him too. Denied their leader, the war effort would probably fall apart. The forces Laya could stir would never arise, since no one would find the body. She'd vanish into myth, where she should have stayed in the first place.
Wasn't it her duty to her master to kill Laya? The girl had been Lord Orakio's enemy, had inherited the mantle of power from her master's rival. She was a clear and present danger to all of Orakio's followers. It would be so simple to eliminate her permanently, yet...
"Why did you throw a snowball at me?! Who do you think you are, male?!"
"It wasn't me!" Nial protested vigorously.
"Then who el—gah!"
Mieu turned her head back toward the clearing. The shousa's hair now sported chunks of snow. Clear laughter rang out as Laya drifted back into visibility. The shousa stared at the blonde girl in clear bafflement. "Alteza?"
"Surely you can play better than that, shousa Miyu?" Laya asked as she tilted her head quizzically. "Or would you rather side with me against Nial?"
The lavender-haired girl's question was interrupted as a snowball hit her from behind. Unfortunately, the one Nial had simultaneously lobbed at Laya missed by a fair distance. Outraged, Miyu abandoned the dignity of her position and joined Laya in pelting the Landenian prince in snow. It took only seconds for the three of them to descend into delighted laughter.
A sigh escaped Mieu's lips. It was so simple, yet at the same time, it would solve nothing. This Laya was not the original. Her demise would not bring back Lord Orakio. No, hurting a single hair on the girl's blonde head probably went against her master's will, as he had to have actively connived with his rival in order to hide the girl for a millennium in the first place.
It all came down to guessing her master's intent, never a simple task with a man as complex as secretive as Lord Orakio. At a guess, Mieu had been put to sleep for the same reason Laya had, as an insurance policy against whatever Lord Orakio and the original Laya had fought against. But why had they been forced to wait for a thousand years?
Nial's protests brought her attention back to the youths. The two girls had brought the gentle giant down. Laya's arms were wrapped around Nial's neck, her head next to his as she laughed, while Miyu had piled on top of the both of them, seemingly less conscious of Laya's special status than she had been before. By all appearances, they were just three teenagers having fun, instead of the important leaders they were.
Somehow, the innocent scene resolved her uncertainty. While the girl might share her sister's name, she was not her sister. Mieu did not know what her master's expectations were, but it was obvious Laya was important in meeting them. Until and unless Laya showed hostile intent toward Orakio's descendants, she would protect the girl. If however, Laya did betray them...
Well, if that happened, then Mieu would do what she must.