Emmett, the blacksmith of the town of Landen, reached towards the handle on the door of his weapon shop with one hand, while his other hand brought the key forward towards the lock. As he did so, however, the door pushed open without the need to unlock it. "That's odd..." Emmett muttered to himself as he stepped inside. "I'm sure I..."
Suddenly, Prince Rhys stood up from behind the counter. Emmett nearly jumped a meter into the air. "Hello, Emmett," the prince greeted. "I'm sorry I broke into your shop and frightened you, but I'm hiding from the castle's soldiers."
"Don't worry about it," Emmett said as he closed and locked the door of his shop. "Prince, I am terribly sorry about what happened today."
Rhys nodded, while at the same time realizing that if everyone would just stop reminding him of it, maybe he'd forget about it in a thousand years or so. Instead of voicing this opinion, however, Rhys just said, "Thank you. Emmett, I have 300 meseta. I would like to purchase a new short sword, please."
Emmett furrowed his brow at the prince. "Your father locked you in the dungeon with 300 meseta on your person?"
"Er, no. Actually, he left it for me in my cell." Rhys paused a minute, but then continued off Emmett's look. "I don't think my father minds that I've escaped from the dungeon. In fact, I think he was planning on releasing me himself. He just doesn't want my mother to know he's letting me go search for Maia by myself."
"Ahh," Emmett nodded, finally understanding. Emmett switched sides of the counter with Rhys, and the blacksmith began inspecting the swords that hung on his wall. "It will be dangerous, prince. Are you sure it is wise?"
"Initially, I wanted to bring the army with me, and crush Laya's clan," Rhys explained. "But my father was right to call that foolish. Besides, if I were to storm Laya's lands -- wherever they may be -- with the army, they may kill Maia in retaliation before I can reclaim her. However, if I were to go alone, I may be able to rescue her quickly and stealthily."
Emmett pulled a sword from the wall, then turned to face the prince. "And then bring the army to destroy the dark witch's clan, eh?" he laughed.
"I don't know," Rhys replied quietly. "Probably not. Once I get Maia back, I don't care about anything else."
Upon hearing Rhys's answer, Emmett's laughter subsided, and with a shrug, he held out the sword he had chosen for Rhys. "Here! It's the best I have at the moment, and perhaps one of my finest creations ever."
Rhys made a visual inspection of the short sword, then took a few steps backwards in order to give himself room to make a few practice slashes with the blade. Finally, he slid it into the scabbard he wore at his side (the scabbard that was empty when the dragon had grabbed Maia) and opened his bag of meseta. "Two-hundred sixty, I presume?"
Emmett shook his head negative. "No charge, prince. You just go and find that princess of yours."
"I insist, Emmett," Rhys said as he emptied most of the contents of his meseta bag onto the counter. "You have a family to feed. Take it, and accept my gratitude."
One did not deny a request from the country's prince, and so Emmett collected the money off of the counter and put it away underneath. "Thank you, Rhys. Is there anything else I can do for you?"
Rhys was now standing near the shop's window, first to check the street for soldiers, and then to check the sun's position in the sky. "I'd like to wait until dark to leave for Yaata."
"The path will be more dangerous at night," Emmett pointed out.
"I know," Rhys agreed, stepping back towards the counter. "But that would seem to be the easiest way to avoid the guards. And so if I could ask it of you, Emmett, would you allow me to stay here and hide until sunset? I promise that should any soldiers discover me, you will not be blamed or held responsible in any way."
Emmett smiled and stepped from behind his counter. "I wouldn't hesitate to help even if there were a danger. Go on upstairs. If you plan to travel overnight, you'll need a nap. The guest room is the second door on the left."
With one booted toe, Prince Lyle of Shusoran kicked open the door before him, drawing stunned glances from the three men inside Castle Cille's throne room. "Uncle," Lyle called out in greeting to the only non-soldier within.
Upon hearing the words, and seeing the form of his daughter in his nephew's arms, the King of Cille's startled expression changed to one of relief. "Thank Laya, you've found her!" the king exclaimed, quickly striding across the room to take the unconscious Maia from Lyle's arms. "Is she all right?"
"Mostly," Lyle nodded. "My claws accidentally cut her arms a bit, and she fainted in shock after I escaped with her."
The king's brow furrowed in confusion. "Shock? She did not recognize her own cousin, the dragon-knight of Shusoran?"
"Uncle..." Lyle began, not quite knowing where to start. "My cousin... appears to be suffering from amnesia."
The color slowly drained from King Cille's face, and he began to breathe as if he had just taken a blow to the stomach. Slowly, he handed his daughter to the two soldiers who had been in Castle Cille's throne room when Lyle had arrived with Maia, and they took the princess off to her room to rest.
Once he was alone with his nephew, King Cille strolled across the room, and gazing into the orange flame within the throne room's fireplace, he asked Lyle to continue.
"After two days of searching the world of Landen, I sill had found no trace of Maia. That night, I slept at the Satera inn, where I learned from the innkeeper that Rhys, the prince of Landen, was to be married the next day. His bride was to be a woman who washed up on Landen's shore two months previously; a woman who could remember nothing of who she was or where she came from except for her name: Maia."
"My daughter, in the hands of the Orakians," King Cille said softly, under his breath. His body visibly shuddered at the thought. "So except for the amnesia, she is well?" he addressed Lyle. "She was not mistreated by the Orakians?"
"Uncle, she was prepared to marry the heir to the throne of Landen," Lyle pointed out. "Apparently, she was treated like..." He shrugged. There was no other term. "A princess."
With obvious relief, King Cille closed his eyes and bowed his head. Taking cue from his uncle, Lyle did the same. "Great Laya, I know you can see in my heart my gratitude towards you, but none the less, I must say it aloud: thank you for returning my daughter safely. With you, all is possible."
"With you, all is possible," Lyle echoed.
Both men raised their heads and locked eyes. "I suppose," the king started, "with that out of the way, it is time to answer your questions."
"Indeed," Lyle agreed, stepping towards the fire to warm his hands. "What has happened to Aquatica? The last time I checked, it was supposed to be the green season."
"Yet the world is covered with snow, and the ocean turned to ice," King Cille agreed. "Cold season came upon us quickly and suddenly, shortly after you left to search for Maia almost a month ago. One day, it started to rain, and the rain did not stop for two days. Over those two days, the temperature continued to fall. By morning of the third day, the rain had become a blizzard."
Lyle breathed in disbelief. "The weather started becoming erratic around the time of Maia's disappearance, but I never thought..." He drifted off, but a moment later, another thought came to him. "The crops? How are the crops of your land, Uncle?"
"Most were destroyed," King Cille solemnly reported. "As for what is undoubtedly your next question, I do not know how Shusoran has fared, for we have not been able to send any messengers with the ocean frozen. However, I can't believe that my sister's land had any more warning as to the sudden weather change than we did."
"What are we to do, then?" Lyle asked. "The farmers will have time to replant, but only if this unexpected winter ends soon."
"Very soon," King Cille added. "If not... there simply won't be enough food for Cille or Shusoran. It seems that, between Maia's disappearance and this sudden winter, we have been given two incredibly taxing tests one on top of the other. I have spent much of my time, since you have been gone, Lyle, at the church."
Lyle nodded absently, but mostly ignored his uncle's words as he rubbed his chin in thought. "Uncle, what if..." he started. Then, as if deciding his theory was valid, he snapped back to full alertness and started over. "What if Maia's disappearance and the sudden winter are not unrelated?" King Cille stared at Lyle for a moment, but finally had to shake his head because he did not understand.
"The innkeeper at Satera told me that Maia washed up on Landen's shore two months ago, correct?" The king nodded. "Two months ago, Maia disappeared... on the night of the first sudden, severe thunderstorm."
Lyle could tell by the change in his uncle's expression that his theory was beginning to make sense. "Uncle, don't you see? The Orakians have done this to us! Somehow, this Prince Rhys once saw Maia and decided to take her for his own. Knowing Maia would never so much as befriend a filthy Orakian, he hatched a plan with his people to afflict my cousin with amnesia and take her off to Landen. They have conspired to not only kidnap your daughter, but to starve us to death by freezing our world."
"But what of the Orakians living in Agoe and Rysel?" King Cille wondered.
"They have undoubtedly stockpiled food for some time in preparation for this," Lyle argued. "Do not forget, uncle: to them, this cold season would not have been unexpected."
"I fear you are correct, Lyle," the king responded at last. "After years and years of skirmishes in which the armies of Cille and Shusoran have crushed the armies of Agoe, the Orakians have finally devised a weapon that, they think, will destroy us once and for all." With a smile of satisfaction, he placed a hand on his nephew's shoulder. "But they do not know that we have Prince Lyle of Shusoran on our side. Perhaps they have cut off our route by sea to the palace of Laya, but you, dragon-knight, will have no trouble reaching Aridia."
"I am to go to the Weather Control Tower first, then?" Lyle queried.
"No, not initially. First, return to Orakio's country in Landen. Perhaps they have found some way of manipulating the weather from there. If they have, it will do no good to travel to Aridia first, for by the time you adjusted the weather there, they will have already ruined your work. Confirm that Orakio's people have done this to us, and that the weather and my daughter's disappearance were not just coincidence. Then, restore the green season to Aquatica."
"And then?" Lyle asked, his mouth turned into one of his lopsided grins.
"Then we will finally finish what Laya started 1,000 years ago," King Cille predicted. "We will conquer the Orakians, once and for all."
"I am incredibly disappointed with you, Lena," King Pitir of Satera grumbled to his daughter. He and his family were in their guest suite in Castle Landen, packing their belongings in preparation for their trip home.
"Father," Lena replied, trying her best to contain her patience, "you yourself told me that King Colin told you that he was going to let Rhys free to go search for Maia."
"That is beside the point," King Pitir countered, emphasizing his words by chopping one of his hands into the other. "My daughter, by freeing Rhys from the dungeon, you violated a direct order from the king of Landen. And while maybe we know that Colin was going to free Rhys, eventually, the general populace does not. All they know is that Colin sent his son to the dungeon, and my daughter, deciding the king of Landen was wrong, helped him to escape."
"I'm sorry, father." Lena's words held a sarcastic tone as she literally threw clothes into her travel case with no regards to folding or organizing. "I guess I just don't care about what other people think, but I do care about things like, ohh, helping a man find the woman he loves." As she spoke, her mother, Queen Elin, came from behind her and placed a hand on her shoulder, but Lena was in no mood to be comforted or to calm down.
"Lena, you will someday become a queen," her father responded slowly.
"Please don't talk to me like I'm two," Lena interrupted. "Of course I know I'm going to be queen."
"Then perhaps," her father grumbled, his own anger reaching a boiling point, "you should start acting like it!"
Queen Elin gasped. Lena stopped packing and stood as motionless as a statue. She stared straight ahead, and did not so much as turn her eyes towards her father, who silently bit his lip and cursed himself for going too far. "Lena, I'm--" he started, but his daughter cut him off.
"Father, you and Mother have prepared me well for my future life as a ruler. One of the things I was taught is that as queen, I will have absolute authority, and I must always do what I think is right, even if it may be an unpopular decision." She slammed her travel case closed and met eyes with her father. "That's what I did today by helping Rhys escape from the dungeon, and so if what I did was," she took on a mocking tone, "'unbecoming of a princess,' then I guess you haven't taught me anything at all."
With that, Lena stormed from the guest suite and slammed the door behind her, leaving behind a room filled with silence. After some time, King Pitir looked up to find that his wife, Queen Elin, was staring straight at him.
"Elin," he started, his straight mouth turning into a grin, "that girl is going to make one hell of a queen."
"Everything looks clear," Rhys whispered over his shoulder to Emmett as he gazed out the blacksmith's window. "Thank you for your hospitality, Emmett. I will return soon, and when I do, I will not be alone."
"Arm yourself well," said the blacksmith, "for your foes are deadly."
"I will," Rhys nodded. With that, he stepped from the blacksmith's shop onto the streets of Landen, which were lit only by faint light from the distant moons overhead. Rhys walked quickly and purposefully, and though he kept his head straight forward, his eyes darted all around him, taking everything in.
However, as he approached the town's gates, he came to a sudden halt. His eyes focused on the uniformed soldier standing nearby. The soldier, with arms folded and chin resting on his chest, appeared to be asleep, but Rhys did not want to take any chances. His quick strides turned into slow, deliberate ones, and he held his breath the entire time as he stepped past the sleeping soldier.
To his horror, a rock crunched underneath his boot just as he walked past the guard. Rhys stopped suddenly and watched the guard for any sign of movement, but apparently, the soldier was out cold.
Once he was a few steps outside Landen's gates, and walking on grass instead of stone, Rhys wasted no time quickening his pace. He kept his eyes wandering, but this time, he was on the lookout for eindons and chirpers instead of soldiers.
Soldiers like the one who suddenly called to him from the gates of Landen. Rhys stopped and froze like a statue the moment he heard the voice behind him, especially when he realized who the owner of the voice was. "Bring her back safely," he heard his father call. "And make sure you bring yourself back safely, too."
His heart beating like a drum, Rhys slowly turned around and scanned the area behind him, but the only person in sight was the "sleeping soldier" at the gates of Landen. Rhys gave a silent nod of thanks in his general direction, and then he turned and continued on his way to Yaata, though this time, he traveled at a slower, more comfortable pace.
Don't hold your breath, Anna. It will be the last one you take.
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