hen compared to the searing heat of Aridia, the passageway to the world known as Draconia felt unexpectedly cool. Sari, in her short jacket, found herself shivering. She smirked when she looked at the Layan princess Thea, who was most underdressed in her sleeveless blouse with a skirt that stopped above the knee. She was obviously very cold.
"Thea, are you going to be all right?" Ayn asked her as the party led by the Prince of Cille entered the strange mechanical cavern. "I could give you my cloak..."
"No, Ayn, it's all right," Thea said, her teeth chattering. "It really isn't that bad in here. I just need to get used to it. That's all."
"I could engage my Flare unit on its lowest setting, Your Majesty," Wren said. "It should warm the area around me rather nicely."
"Flare?" Thea asked, her index finger pointing to her mouth. "Hmmm... I don't believe I've ever heard of that technique."
"It isn't a technique," Sari said matter-of-factly. "It's a special skill that cyborgs have. It's like your Layan Foi."
Thea nodded, and then looked away from Sari. Her eyes bugged out and she made an ugly face as she said, "Oh-ooohhh... So sorry!"
Mieu and Ayn both chuckled.
"What's so funny?" Sari demanded.
"It's nothing, Sari," Ayn said. "Let's keep going."
The party continued deeper into the cavern, occasionally running into a party of corrupted Orakian death drones which posed no threat to the combined might of the five highly-skilled warriors.
After walking for some time, Sari and Thea fell a few paces behind the prince and his cyborgs. Sari took the opportunity to have a few words with the heir to Lyle's throne.
"Your father is the king of that country...the one Rhys' cousin rules."
"That's right," Thea said. "Shusoran."
"So...you and Rhys are related then," Sari muttered.
"Correct," said Thea. "King Rhys and I are related, but only by marriage. You see, Queen Maia, Rhys' wife, is my father's first cousin. That makes she and I second cousins. So, King Rhys is my second cousin, also."
"So then...you and Ayn are third cousins," Sari whispered.
"Yes, we are. We used to see one another all the time when we were young. My parents and I used to visit Cille kingdom regularly, and King Rhys and his family came to Shusoran often, as well. Ayn and I hadn't seen in other in several years until this past week, however, when the cyborgs began attacking." It was Thea's turn to look at her companion sideways. "You really don't know who is behind it?"
"Surely you saw your own attackers," Sari said. "Why do you ask me?"
"All I saw were cyborgs," answered Thea. "They all look alike to me, except for Mieu and Wren, of course. They are family almost as much as Ayn."
"That's highly unusual... Layan cyborgs..."
"Do Mieu and Wren consider themselves Layan? I doubt it."
Sari shrugged. "Their master is Layan. And no, I don't know who attacked your kingdoms. I'll admit that the idea did cross my mind, but I never would have gone through with it. Ayn has shown me that King Rhys is the only object of my revenge, not his family or people."
Thea laughed. "So you really plan to kill him? I'm afraid I cannot let you murder one of my kinsmen. And I doubt Ayn is warm to the idea."
Sari looked at the floor. She had to admit to herself that her hard heart had been softened considerably by Ayn. Although she still spoke of exacting her revenge, her heart was simply no longer in it. But, although she had to admit it to herself, there was no need whatsoever for her to reveal it to her companions, especially Thea.
Thea cocked an eyebrow. "You have feelings for him, don't you?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Sari said. "He is a Layan. His father destroyed my realm."
"It didn't look all that destroyed to me." Thea said it very sweetly.
Sari looked down into the murky depths which lay all around the thin catwalk the party was crossing. "That's because you didn't see it before."
"Oh... Well, neither did you, really. And after the events of the past week, I know a ruined land when I see one. Landen isn't one of them, Sari. It truly isn't."
Sari glanced at Thea. After a silence she said, "Do you...have feelings for him?"
Thea's milky skin grew even paler, although her cheeks were rose petals. "Of course! I love Ayn! He is family. A cousin."
Sari's eyebrow rose and she shook a finger at Thea. This was a rather intimidating gesture, as the Queen of Landen was holding a freshly-sharpened force knife in the same hand. "That's not what I meant, and you know it."
Thea played with a laser slicer nervously. She turned its shining, foldable blade over and over again in her sweaty hands. "What about you, Sari? I asked you first."
"Think what you will," she said. The words came with so much venom that Thea would have thought Sari should spit after saying them for fear of being poisoned.
"And you do the same," the emerald-haired princess said. "We will see what happens."
"Good news, everybody!" Ayn called from the head of the party's queue. "I can see the exit up ahead."
Sari smirked and nodded.
Thea waved her slicer about in the air. "Hurrah! Satellite, we're on our way!"
"Can we say, 'kissing up?'" Sari said in a very low register so that only her Layan counterpart could hear.
"Can we say, 'jealous?'" Thea retorted. The challenge in her voice was apparent.
Ayn stood beside the stairwell which would lead the group to the surface of the world known as Draconia. It was a balmy world of white sands, cool breezes, and tall, thin trees that dropped large brown nuts. Mieu and Wren awaited the two royal women on the other side of the catwalk.
"Leave it to Prince Ayn to lead us to victory," Thea said. She stood before her distant cousin and curtseyed most regally.
Ayn was taken aback, flattered, and...otherwise pleased by the display. He gallantly took the fair-skinned princess' hand and kissed it. "After you, my lady," he said, bowing and indicating the exit.
Thea smiled and ascended.
Sari followed her. To Ayn she said, "Perhaps you aren't so bad after, Son of Rhys." With that she lightly slapped the side of Ayn's face, and winked. She climbed out of the tunnel without another word.
"Shall we be going now, Prince?" Mieu asked. But Ayn simply stood where he was, stunned and unable to speak.
"I will help him," Wren said. Taking the prince's hand as he had done when Ayn was but a child, Wren led his master out of the dreary passage and into the sunlight above.
Even after emerging, Ayn remained in his trance for a few seconds until Mieu shook him and said, "Hello! Shall we be off?"
"Right..." Ayn muttered, clearly very embarrassed. He unsheathed his laser sword in a grand gesture, pointed it towards the sky, and said, "To Satellite!"
"Oh, Ayn," Thea said dreamily. "As a Layan, I am so proud to be on this mission with you."
"And don't forget," Sari interjected as she stepped between Thea and Ayn, "that without my Power Topaz, the trip would be impossible."
Ayn smiled and said, "You're right. What a pleasure it is to have you both along... What a pleasure indeed..."
Mieu sighed and shook her head. "Royalty. Or should I say Palmans?"
Wren put his arm around his long-time companions' shoulders and tugged her in close. "Mieu, my dear, that is one I have yet to figure out."