Chapter Seven

Rhys and Mieu's trip back to Yaata was much easier than anything Rhys had experienced previously on his quest to find Maia, and not just because he now had a partner. As they stepped from the lake's clearing where they had met, Rhys started scanning the landscape with his eyes, trying to find the path back to civilization. "I'm not quite sure..." he muttered. "I think it's this way."

"Why don't you just use your monitor, prince?" Mieu asked.

"My what?" came Rhys's puzzled reply.

Mieu pointed towards the small electronic device tucked into Rhys's belt. "Your monitor," she repeated. Rhys reached down and took it into his hand. He had almost forgotten about picking it up when he was in his castle's dungeon. "Why don't you use it? Is it broken?"

"I think so," Rhys nodded. "I tried turning it on before, but all I got was static." Extending his hand, the prince offered the monitor to Mieu, who turned it over in her hands, giving the device a close inspection.

"Where did you turn it on before?" Mieu asked at last.

"Down in my castle's dungeon," Rhys replied. "Why?"

"Silly," Mieu said, flashing a smile. "Monitors don't work inside. How do you expect them to--" The android stopped herself short. Though she had known Prince Rhys for only a matter of moments, she could tell already that he did not know the truth. And if the Prince of Landen was unaware of the true nature of the world they lived in -- or rather, the spaceship they lived in -- then it was probably a good guess that everyone else was unaware, too, at least in this bio-sphere.

So Mieu did not finish her statement by saying, "How do you expect them to uplink with the sensor cluster at the top of the bio-sphere and report back the coordinates of your life sign?" Instead, she simply finished by saying, "--to know where you are?"

"I don't know," Rhys shrugged. "I'd only read about monitors in books before my father gave me that one."

Mieu turned on the monitor's power switch, then handed it back to the prince. "Take a look now."

As Rhys accepted the device back, he took a sharp intake of breath. "By Orakio..." he whispered under his breath, awestruck at the image on the monitor's screen: a complete electronic map of all of Landen, including a flashing white dot at the precise point where he and Mieu now stood, just west of the lake where they had met. "Mieu, is this all of the world?"

Not quite. There's six more bio-spheres where that one came from, Mieu thought to herself. Aloud, however, she replied, "Yes, that is all of Landen. And that flashing dot represents you."

Rhys shook his head in reverence. "Incredible. This will make our trip back to Yaata much easier." With that, the prince started walking.

"Yes, I'm sure it will," Mieu agreed, falling into step next to the prince. "But you probably don't want to keep it on for too long, or the power will run out."

"Oh, certainly." Rhys flipped the switch and returned the now-powerless device to his belt.

"And we may want to stop at Ilan for the night," Mieu suggested, "before continuing on into Yaata in the morning. It's almost dark."

"I agree," Rhys nodded. "Are you tired?"

"I don't require sleep, prince," Mieu revealed. "I was just thinking of you."

"Oh," Rhys blinked. "Well, thank you." The Prince of Landen paused and then chuckled. "I think it's going to be a little different. Having an android around, that is."

He and Mieu both laughed. Afterwards, Mieu spoke up. "So, before I introduced you to your monitor, you were starting to say something about a woman named Maia?"

"That's right," Rhys said, his voice instantly taking on an earnest tone. "She's beautiful, she's the love of my life... and she's missing."

- - - - - - - - - -

Mieu glanced across the dim room, lit only by a purple glow from Dahlia, and observed the sleeping form of Prince Rhys. Based on the rate at which his chest rose and sank, and the fact that Mieu could see his eyes were dancing around behind his eyelids like wild, caged eindons, the android determined that her new master was dreaming. As an android, Mieu could not sleep, but nevertheless, she gazed out the window at the distant purple moon and dreamed herself of days gone by.

This was the first night in 1,000 years she had been fully activated for any significant length of time. How the world had changed! Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, How the people had changed. Alisa III was still, basically, the same ship... at least, the same as what Orakio and Laya had turned it into, in the end. The Alisa III that existed now (at 1,007 years old) was a much different ship than the one which had launched from Palma, near the great town of Camineet.

As Mieu continued to stare at distant Dahlia, she recalled the day that Orakio had suggested creating it, as well as the blue moon, Azura. "We shall never be able to return to Algo," he reasoned, "so why should we not make ourselves more at home here on Alisa III? If, on Palma, we could look into the night sky and see two distant worlds, why should we not have the same luxury here?" The people led by Laya (they had not adopted the name Layans just yet) even helped. That was before the Devastation War started.

The android closed her eyes upon remembering those two words, and all of the memories that came back with them. She remembered the day Orakio had received the news that, for some reason, Laya's forces were approaching. She remembered fighting in that first skirmish. And though her electronic heart wrenched at the mental picture, she remembered using her claws to slay members of Laya's forces, as well.

Within weeks, the initial skirmishes had turned into the Devastation War. The landscape was being destroyed by the battles. And the casualties...

Though she did not understand what had brought about Orakio's sudden change of heart, she was immensely relieved the day he announced that his army would no longer attack any Palmans under Laya's command; as far as he was concerned, the war would be fought only against Laya's monsters. "Consider it the law," he had said, and soon this decree came to be known as Orakio's Law. For some reason, around the same time, Laya's people started to follow a similar rule, though they called it Laya's Law.

Then had come the bombshell. She had been stunned the day Orakio told her he was traveling to Mystoke in Frigidia for a summit with Laya. Soon after, he announced that he, Siren, and Miun were going on a secret mission with Laya and Lune. And then he had ordered her to wait 1,000 years... but for what?

All right, master, Mieu thought to herself. I've done as you ordered. But I can't believe you would tell me to partially shut myself down for a millennium just so I could help out some kid whose bride was abducted. What was I to wait for? And where is Wren? You told me he'd be around in 1,000 years, as well.

To her surprise, Mieu found she half-expected to get an answer. Orakio may have been her master, but unlike the people living today in Alisa III, Mieu knew that he was just a man, not the... messiah Prince Rhys and the others made him out to be.

Or was he? What had he done on that final mission, the one in which he teamed up with Laya? It was true that after that, the Devastation War promptly came to a screeching halt. Had Orakio really... saved the world?

Mieu stepped away from the window and sighed as she fell into the chair in the corner of the small inn room. The truth was, she didn't know. The truth was, she might never know. And that was what troubled her most of all.

- - - - - - - - - -

The next morning, Prince Rhys poked his head into Ilan's bakery and called out to the shop's owner, who had pointed him in the direction of the lake where he had found Mieu. "Hello, Amar!" Rhys called.

"Good Prince Rhys!" the baker called back. "Please, come in. I was worried about you. When we last spoke, you were going off in search of that Layan by the lake."

"Umm, Amar?" Rhys stuttered. "There's someone I'd like you to meet." Rhys opened the door wider and stepped inside. A moment later, Mieu followed him in, returning Amar's stunned, frightened look with a smile of friendliness.

The android fixed her big blue eyes on the baker. "I'm pleased to meet you, Amar," Mieu said cheerfully. "I'm sorry I gave you a scare back at the lake."

"Prince..." Amar began, addressing Rhys though his eyes remained focused on Mieu. "I, uhh, I'm sorry, prince, but I don't allow Layans in my shop. I'm going to have to ask you to leave."

"She's not a Layan, Amar," Rhys protested, stepping closer to the shop's counter. Mieu followed the prince. Amar, upon noticing her approach, backed up into the wall behind him. "She's a Mieu-type combat cyborg."

Amar blinked, and for the first time since Mieu stepped into the bakery, he turned his gaze away from her and back to Prince Rhys. "A cyborg?" the baker repeated. "As in, servant of Orakio?"

"I knew him personally," Mieu nodded. "You don't have anything to fear from me, Amar."

The baker bit his lip. Despite Mieu's assurances, he remained unconvinced -- though he had stepped away from the wall, towards the prince and the android. "But... when I saw you at the lake..." Amar began. "You, you never even blinked!"

"I know," Mieu nodded. "I was in partial shut-down mode. I didn't even know you were there until later, when I reviewed what had happened while I was 'semi-conscious.'"

"The only way I got her attention," Rhys revealed, "was by putting my sword to her throat."

"And then I got his attention," Mieu added with a smile.

Absorbing all of this, Amar finally shook his head and let out a deep breath. He turned to Rhys and said, "She looks mighty odd to me, I'll tell you." Then, turning back to Mieu, he offered her a smile and his hand. "But any friend of Orakio's has to be a friend of mine."

- - - - - - - - - -

During the journey back to Yaata, where Old Man Blake's boat and Rhys's trip out to the island awaited, Rhys discussed his strategy for finding Maia with Mieu. "If she's not out on the island," Rhys began, "then I believe we should head east, into the mountains east of Ilan. I hear there is another cave somewhere in that area. Perhaps the dragon took Maia there."

Mieu was hesitant to respond. "Yes, there is a cave in those mountains," she said at last, "but it is sealed. A special gem called the Sapphire is needed to enter it." And I don't want you heading in there anyway, prince. You believe the entire world is Landen. I'm not sure how you'd take a visit to the bio-sphere Aquatica.

"Hmm. Castle Satera has in its possession a gem called the Sapphire. Are you sure there is no other way to enter the cave?"

Mieu nodded in agreement. Despite her reservations about taking Rhys to Aquatica, she also knew odds were good that Maia was being held in one of the Layan lands there. Slowly, she was starting to realize it was very possible -- in fact, probable -- that she would have to take Rhys there in order to save Maia. "I'm positive," she answered Rhys. "The only way into that cave is with the Sapphire."

"Well, then," Rhys said, his optimism apparently rejuvenated. "If Maia's not out on the island, we'll have to visit Satera and ask to borrow the Sapphire. I recently met Satera's princess, Lena, and my father has long been friends with King Pitir. I'm positive they'll be willing to help us."

"That's wonderful," Mieu beamed to the prince, but inside, she was wondering how she was going to explain to Rhys that what looked like a cave from the outside was really an inner-spaceship maintenance tunnel which led from one bio-sphere to another.

- - - - - - - - - -

"Excuse me, Blake," Prince Rhys said to the old ship captain as he and Mieu approached where he stood on the docks outside of Yaata, "but I present to you one fully functioning Mieu-type combat cyborg. And she's willing to sail with us out to the island."

The old man averted his gaze from the rope he was tying and locked eyes with Mieu. "Hello, Blake," the android smiled. "My name is Mieu."

Blake finished tying a knot in the rope and then took a step towards Mieu, scratching at the back of his head. "You don't say," he said softly, looking her up and down. "How do I know you're really a cyborg?"

"Because," Mieu began, "can a normal person do this?" She held one fist upright before her, the back of her hand facing Blake, and then she extended her claws from where they hid inside her forearms. Twisting her hand back and forth to let the metal of the blades reflect the sunlight overhead, Mieu wore an amused grin as she eyed Blake's look of astonishment.

"Incredible!" he exclaimed at last. "She's a cyborg! I can sail my ship again!"

With Mieu's performance over, she withdrew her claws. At the same time, Rhys stepped forward and took charge. "We'd like to go out to the island, Blake," Rhys requested. "We believe my bride, Maia, is possibly being held against her will out there."

"Welcome aboard!" Blake said, motioning Rhys and Mieu towards a board which had been set up as a bridge between the shore and the boat. The prince and the android climbed aboard the ship, followed by the captain. "So, you're heading out to the island, eh?" he asked as he approached the wheel. "Seems like a popular place."

Rhys and Mieu exchanged puzzled glances at those last words. "What do you mean, 'popular place'?" Rhys questioned.

Blake shrugged. "Well, it's just that there's someone holed up in the cave on the island," he answered. "I hear he stole a gem."

"Where did you hear that from?" Mieu asked the old man.

"There was a message scrawled into the sand when I came out to my ship this morning. It said there was some man out on the island who stole a gem. Whoever wrote the message also took my life boat and rowed out to the island in pursuit. Evidently, though, he didn't drag the life boat far enough onto the island's shore, because right after I read the message, I saw it floating a few feet away from the mainland here, unoccupied."

"So," Rhys said slowly, putting the pieces together, "there could be two or more people out there on the island?"

"That's right," Blake nodded. His head was turned around, checking the rear of the ship as he steered the boat away from shore. "And one of 'em stole a gem." A pause. "Hmm. Maybe that's why all them folks from Satera were here this morning."

"What?" Rhys and Mieu both exclaimed suddenly. They exchanged another stunned glance, then Rhys continued. "Did you say people from Satera were in Yaata this morning?"

Blake nodded "yes." "They were looking for Princess Lena. I guess she turned up missing last night. Plus, they said something called the Sapphire had been stolen. That's some kind of a gem, isn't it?"

"Yes," Rhys said softly. "It certainly is." Slowly, he walked to the bow of the ship and watched overboard as the sea vessel cut through the water of the ocean. Mieu silently crept up behind him. They spent about the entire first half of the trip that way: Rhys watching the water, Mieu watching Rhys, both of them remaining silent.

The android finally broke that silence. "Meseta for your thoughts?"

"I just get amazed sometimes, that's all," Rhys responded. "Right as we head out to the island, Orakio puts the other item we need right there. He's just so... awesome."

The prince turned towards Mieu and smiled. In return, she offered a weak smile of her own. She didn't really know how else to respond. To her, Orakio was just a man. To Rhys, he was... so much more. Realizing she had to say something, Mieu said, "He was a very kind man." It was true enough.

"Hey!" Old Man Blake suddenly called out, raising his voice to overpower the sound of the waves. "Hey, prince, you want to see something interesting?"

"Sure," Rhys called back. "What?"

"See the palace down there in the muck?" Rhys returned his attention to the water. Mieu, meanwhile, kept her eyes focused on Blake.

"Yes," Rhys confirmed. "What about it?"

"It's haunted!" Blake yelled with a chuckle.


"That's right. Our oldest legend says the evil Dark Force is trapped there by the sword of Orakio!"

That got Mieu's attention. Quickly, she ran to the side of the ship and looked overboard. There, deep within the ocean, mostly obscured by the water, was an exquisite palace. And if what Blake says is correct, Mieu thought, then Orakio himself is no doubt down there, as well.

The android was pulled from her trance by Prince Rhys. "Look, Mieu," he called, pointing forward. "We're almost to the island." Mieu looked up once and saw that Rhys was correct. Then, after one last, long look at the Sunken Palace, she turned to the prince and smiled.

"Let's get ready."

- - - - - - - - - -

Rhys stood at the entrance to the island cave, Mieu one step behind him. Biting his lower lip, the prince peered inside. "It's awfully dark in there," he announced before spinning on his heels. "Maybe there's a tree branch nearby we can use as a torch or som--"

He broke off. Just as he was stepping away from the cave's entrance to look for a branch, Mieu was pushing her way inside. "We don't need a torch, Prince," Mieu said. Then, before Rhys's astonished eyes, he saw a rectangular section of her left shoulder rise up on a small pole from the rest of her body, spin on its axis to face forward, and then, the path before her was... well, it was as if she were no longer in a cave, but still outside in the daylight.

Mieu turned her head and smiled at the prince. "I've got our light taken care of."

"All right," Rhys nodded, motioning forward with an arm. "You lead the way, then."

If they would have looked down at their feet as they entered the cave, Rhys and Mieu would have noticed fresh footprints, left there a few hours earlier, when

- - - - - - - - - -

Lena, knife in hand, cautiously stepped into the island cave. She'd thought it had been hard to see out in the life boat, but that had been nothing next to the total darkness that was before her now. At least out on the ocean, she had the glow of Dahlia to guide her to the island. Here in the cave, the way was light only periodically, and then only by thin purple beams of light which shined in through cracks in the walls of the cavern.

So, after she stepped inside, she paused for a few minutes to let her eyes adjust to the light (or lack thereof). Then, with fingers crossed and a prayer to Orakio, she began to journey through the tunnels that made up the cave. It was a long and slow process, considering the facts that the cave contained numerous passages and that she had to proceed through them with tiny steps -- with the lack of light, she wouldn't be able to spot a chasm until she was falling into it.

She had to stop several times and lean up against the wall for rest. Not only did the muscles in her arms ache from all the rowing she'd had to do in order to get to the island, but her stomach growled with hunger and on top of it all, this whole ordeal had begun after she'd woken up in the middle of the night, so besides all else, she was exhausted.

At one point, Lena sat down to take a five-minute rest. She leaned her head back against the wall of the cave and closed her eyes, and when she opened them, the dim purple beams of light from Dahlia shining through the cracks in the cavern walls had been replaced by the bright yellow ones of the sun. "Oh my gosh," Lena whispered. "Stupid, stupid, Lena. He might be gone by now."

Quickly -- or at least, as quickly as she dared, because though brighter, the cave was still quite dim -- she continued through the passageways of the cave. About an hour after waking up, she turned into a tunnel she swore she'd been in a hundred times before, but just as she was about to spin around and retrace her steps, she saw the green-haired man.

He was sitting up against the wall of the cave, right near a sharp turn up ahead. He was sleeping, just as she had been. Perfect... Lena thought to herself. I'll just quietly step up to him and take what's rightfully my father's.

Lena drew her knife into her hand and stepped towards the green-haired man. Her eyes remained locked on his face, searching for any sign of him awakening. Once, he snorted and slightly moved, causing Lena to jump and almost lose her grip on her knife. However, she quickly regained her composure and continued her approach.

Once she reached him, she crouched down, extending her knife-holding arm until the sharp tip of the knife was pressed directly against the flesh of the green-haired dragon man's throat. Then, in position, she smiled and woke him up. "Hey," she hissed. "You. Dragon man. Wake up, though I suggest you do it slowly, and don't move anything except your eyelids."

Lena saw him stir the moment she'd said, "Hey," and then, after she finished her sentence, he opened his eyelids as slowly as she demanded. Once his eyes confirmed the owner of the voice was who he thought it was, his face sank into a frown. "How did you get out here?"

"Bad move, leaving me right next to a port town," Lena shook her head. "I borrowed a life boat from the sailing ship at Yaata and rowed myself out." Her voice resonated with pride.

"What do you want?" he hissed in frustration.

"Don't play stupid with me, dragon man," Lena grinned. "You know what two things I want from you. So first of all, I want you to slowly reach into your pouch and hand me the Sapphire."

The green-haired man stole a quick glance at the knife that was literally touching his skin. "You won't kill me," he finally told Lena, his eyes showing he completely believed his words. "You're too weak. I don't think you could bring yourself to murder a chirper."

At the words, Lena's grin fell from her face. She pushed her knife closer -- just a fraction of inch closer -- to the tender flesh of the thief's neck. It was enough to draw a faint trickle of blood, as well as cause the dragon man's eyes to widen with surprise.

"That's for condescending me," Lena said defiantly. "I assume I've proven you wrong." She paused, taking satisfaction in the look on the green-haired man's face; she knew he had underestimated her. "Now slowly, take out the Sapphire."

The thief did so, his arm moving even slower than Lena had in those first hesitant steps she took into the cavern. "What's your name, dragon man?" Lena asked as she waited for the Sapphire to be removed from the pouch. "You know my name, I figure it's only fair I know yours, too."

"Lyle," he replied. By this time, his hand was in his pouch, probably wrapped around the Sapphire.

"What have you done with Maia, Lyle? Why did you kidnap her?"

"She did not belong there," he replied simply.

"And why, pray tell, is that for you to decide?" Lena demanded sharply. Before she could receive an answer, however, Lyle held up one of his hands, and in it was the Sapphire.

Princess Lena quickly snatched it from his hand and stole a quick glance at it before returning her gaze to Lyle's eyes. "I'd say thank you, but I don't think that's appropriate when receiving something that is already rightfully yours." She watched his face for a reaction, but she got none. "Okay then," she continued. "Here's the big question. I want to know where Maia is, and I wan--"

She stopped short. Somewhere in the distance -- though not too far distant -- Lena heard a voice. It was a female voice, but whoever it was said his name. "Let's try this tunnel, Rhys." Lena's head reflexively turned towards the source of the voice... and in that moment, Lyle pounced.

He reached out and snatched Lena's knife-holding wrist into his powerful hand and twisted hard. The knife clattered to the ground below, but Lyle did not pay attention to that. His other hand was reaching out to smother Lena's mouth, and with that accomplished, he then used the hand that had disarmed the princess of Satera to spin her around and carry her off down the tunnel.

Though Lena kicked and uttered muffled screams all the way, Lyle took her around the passageway's sharp turn, ducked under a stalactite, and sat her down hard against the wall. The positions were now reversed; now, Lena had her back to the wall, and Lyle was the one standing over her. Lyle, however, was armed only with an icy glare -- a glare he fixed squarely at Lena, letting her know he meant business.

"Shut up," he commanded her softly. When she failed to comply, he moved his hand an inch upward, so that he covered her mouth and her nostrils. "Shut up!" he repeated. This time, she complied, and in return, he moved his hand back to its original position. "I'm going to remove my hand," he said, pausing to notice Lena was preparing to brandish the Sapphire against his head and then to casually rip it from her grasp, "and when I do, I expect you to remain silent."

Lena's reaction to this idea came muffled from Lyle's hand: "ike ell!"

"I am not going to hurt you, Lena," Lyle continued, "but I am going out there to speak to Rhys, and you will remain silent. I promise not to hurt him, Lena, but if you get up or make a sound -- if you so much as breathe too loudly... so help me Laya, I will take dragon-shape and bite a chunk of flesh out of Rhys's neck. His life is entirely in your hands, Lena. Do you understand?"

Lyle could tell by the look on Lena's face and the fact that her muffled protests had been suddenly cut off that she did, indeed, understand quite clearly. "I'm going to remove my hand now, Lena," Lyle said softly. "And remember, I give you my word I will not harm Rhys... but you must live up to your end of the bargain, as well. Understood?"

The dragon-man removed his hand from her mouth. In response to his question, Lena slowly nodded. Then, she watched helplessly as he spun on his heels and made the sharp turn back into the cavern where she had first stumbled upon him, sleeping. Oh Orakio, she prayed. Please don't let him hurt Rhys. I don't care if he kills me, but please don't let him hurt Rhys!

- - - - - - - - - -

Sloppy, Lyle, he thought to himself as he looked down at where he had been awaken with a knife to his throat. Damn sloppy. Somewhere else in the cave -- and not too far away, at that -- Lyle heard Rhys's voice. "Are we getting closer?" he asked.

Lyle prayed to Laya that the voice which answered would match the one which had distracted Lena long enough for him to grab her. The last thing I need right now is three people here rather than two. He breathed a sigh of relief when he heard that it was. "Yes, prince," came the female voice, "that clatter came from just around this turn, I believe."

Clatter? Lyle looked down at his feet and saw Lena's knife. Quickly, in one fluid motion, he reached down and tucked it into his belt, then pulled his shirt down over it to hide the handle. All the while, he was striding forward, to meet Rhys and whoever it was--

She came around the corner and almost ran right into him. To Lyle's credit, he managed to keep composure perfectly. In fact, he didn't so much as gulp or even blink when he saw that Rhys's traveling companion was

A cyborg, Lyle whispered in his mind. By Laya, the damn fool found a cyborg.

Just then, the "damn fool" came around the corner and joined the mechanical abomination. He and Lyle locked eyes, and Lyle had one brief moment to pray to Laya that he would not recognize him (as Lena somehow had) before he saw the prince of Landen reach for his sword.

"Hi!" he exclaimed, waving a hand in greeting to both Rhys and the cyborg. He'd thought the display of friendship would make Rhys cease movement towards his sword, but he saw, however, that was not the case. Nevertheless, he finished his greeting unpreterbed. "I'm Lyle. Who do I have the pleasure of--"

"Excuse me," Rhys interrupted, "but is that gem in your hand the Sapphire?"

Inwardly, Lyle violently cursed himself. How in Laya's name had he walked out here with the Sapphire still in his hand?

"Why, yes, I do have the Sapphire," Lyle began, but before he could finish, he found the cyborg's claws inches away from his face, much as Lena's knife had been to his neck a few moments earlier. Options feverishly ran through Lyle's mind. Attack? Take dragon-shape? Or maybe... I can bluff my way out of this.

Inwardly, Lyle grinned his sly smile. Outwardly, he took on a look of bafflement. "I... I don't understand."

"That gem is stolen property," Rhys told him sternly. "Now where di--"

But Lyle would not let him finish. "Yes, I know, I saw the men who took it." Though Rhys's sword and the cyborg's claws remained where they were, Lyle could tell by the looks on their faces that he'd bought himself a few moments of time. "I was out for a walk late last night, and I overheard two men talking about the burglary. One disappeared to the west, but I saw the other make his way out to this island on some kind of makeshift raft. So I borrowed the life boat from the docks and followed him out here." As a show of good faith, he extended the Sapphire towards Rhys. "I didn't find the man, but I found the Sapphire. I don't really need it, but you're welcome to it."

When Lyle saw the cyborg look to Rhys, saw Rhys nod, and then saw the cyborg retract her claws, Lyle knew he'd won. Rhys sheathed his sword and accepted the Sapphire. "Thank you, Lyle," Rhys smiled. "And good work."

"No problem," Lyle shrugged. "Say, you're Prince Rhys, right?" Off Rhys's nod, Lyle continued. "Did you find that pretty bride of yours yet?"

"No," Rhys frowned. "We were hoping she was maybe here, on this island, but we've scoured the whole thing, except for this passage behind you, and she's not here."

Lyle cocked a thumb behind him. "I'm sorry to say there's no pretty young princess in that passage back there, either," he lied. "Just a dead end where I left some of my supplies."

Rhys sighed. Clearly, despite the fact that they only had one passage left to search in the entire cavern, Rhys had remained optimistic that Maia was here. You dimwitted fool, Lyle thought. Give up. She's gone, and she'll never be yours. As he gloated inwardly, his eyes darted to the cyborg, and he saw that she was staring at him with her cold, mechanical eyes.

"In that case," Rhys said, glancing at the cyborg, "I suppose Mieu and I will head east. I've heard there's a cave over there that can only be opened with this gem."

Lyle's pulse quickened. No no NO! Outwardly, however, he showed no signs of his anxiety. "I'd like to join you on your adventures," he lied again, "but I have other things to do now."

"Would you like a ride back to Yaata with us? The life boat you borrowed drifted back to shore."

Lyle made a show of considering the offer for a moment, but then said, "Thanks, but no. I saw the bandit's raft on the other side of the island, and I think I'll use that to return home." Another glance at the cyborg he'd called Mieu. Stop staring at me, you Orakian abomination!

"Suit yourself," Rhys shrugged. "We have to be on our way then."

"See you around!" he waved at their backs. He watched them go, and waved again as they turned the corner and disappeared... at which time Mieu shot him one last suspicious glance.

"Stare all you want, you malformation of nature," Lyle whispered to himself. "But your master will never see my cousin Maia again."

- - - - - - - - - -

Rhys and Mieu were back on Old Man Blake's sailing ship, heading back to Yaata, when Mieu finally spoke. "Something is wrong, prince."

"What's that?" Rhys asked off-handedly. He was already busy thinking about what kind of meal he was going to have once he returned to Yaata. His stomach was growling like one of Laya's beasts!

"That man said he saw the bandits who took the Sapphire in the middle of last night, right?"

"Yes," Rhys nodded.

"And isn't that the same time the Sapphire was stolen? Last night?"

"Yeah," Rhys said, eyebrows furrowed. "What's the point?"

"The point is, for both of those statements to be true, the bandits would have had to have made the half-day's journey from Satera to Yaata in a matter of an hour or less," Mieu pointed out. "I don't know of anyone that can move that fast." Except for Wren in his aerojet mode.

Rhys pursed his lips and considered this for a moment. Ultimately, however, he shrugged his shoulders and turned back to the sea. "Don't worry about it, Mieu," he said. "We have the Sapphire, and as soon as we find Maia, we'll return it to King Pitir of Satera. Everything's all right."

"I don't trust that Lyle -- if that's even his real name," was Mieu's response.

"Hey, relax," Rhys said, placing a hand on Mieu's shoulder. "Androids can relax, right?"

Mieu flashed a smile at her new commander. "We might not sleep, and we might not eat," she said, "but we most definitely relax."

"Good," Rhys beamed. "We'll head back to Yaata, I'll catch a meal, and then we'll travel to Ilan. We'll stay there for the night, and then tomorrow morning, we'll head off to that mysterious eastern cave. Sound good?"

"Sounds good to me," Mieu nodded, and she wasn't lying. It gave her all the more time to figure out how to explain to Rhys that the cave led to another world.

- - - - - - - - - -

Lena heard footsteps. She turned her head and saw Lyle step back into the passage of the cavern where he had left her. He did not look happy. She opened her mouth to whisper a question, but as she did, he raised one finger to his lips and silently commanded her to be quiet.

A few quick steps later, he was crouched down in front of her. "I don't have your Sapphire anymore, Lena," he whispered, his voice filled with ice. "Your precious Prince Rhys has it now."

Lena smiled. "Good. When he takes it back to my kingdom, the guards you attacked last night will give him your description. Then he'll know you were the one who stole it, he'll come after you, and when he finds you, he'll make you take him to Maia."

"Not quite," Lyle answered back, "so wipe away the sarcastic smile. Rhys is not going to your kingdom. In fact, he's heading farther from it. He's heading east, towards the cave in the mountains."

For a moment, Lena was silent. Perhaps Rhys still would come charging to her rescue, but, if what Lyle said was true, it was going to be a while. "So why are you so upset then?" she finally asked. "Aren't you glad that what I said isn't going to happen?"

"No, I'm not," Lyle hissed. "That eastern cave is not a cave like this one, Lena. That cave is the gateway to another world. My world. The Sapphire is the only key into that world, and I stole it so that Rhys would not get there. Now, thanks to you, I've been forced to deliver it straight to his hand. He is indeed going to make it to Aquatica."

Lena sat in silence. In truth, she was scared beyond belief. Lyle alone, with his ability to turn into a dragon, was dangerous... and now, Rhys was somehow about to walk into an entire world of people like him. She prayed to Orakio for his safety, and, if Maia was there, too, for hers as well.

"So what are we going to do?" she finally asked.

Lyle sat down across from her. "We're going to wait for Rhys and his new cyborg friend to leave the island."

"Then?" Lena didn't like the way Lyle was grinning, not at all.

"Then, Lena, you will become a very privileged individual, indeed, for you will become the first person from Landen in centuries to visit my homeland."

"I... I don't like the sound of that," she admitted.

"Nor should you," Lyle chuckled. "Orakians are not welcome in the great Layan city of Shusoran."

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