Princess Of Cille
"Tell me about my cousin," said Maia.
Her companion looked up from where he leaned over the stern of the boat. The rudder had started pulling a bit and Benth thought that something might have caught it. He was a black-haired young man with a boyishly sincere face. Neither Orakian nor Layan he was an anomoly that wouldn't have existed back in the Orakian-dominated lands of Landen where Layans hadn't existed for a thousand years. The concept of a neutral party settled more agreeably in her mind that she thought it would have, perhaps because it was a memory she had once possessed?
"What would you like to know?" asked Benth, tugging his jacket closer around him. He had told her earlier that the frigid cold that now enveloped this world, this sphere that contained the lands of Aquata, was unusual and that the temperature was normally comfortably warm. That was good. She did not want to live in this land of snow and ice when she had experienced the sunny fields of Landen.
Maia sighed and buried her face into the scarf she had borrowed from Benth's sister. "I don't know where to start. Lyle told you that I'm missing my memory. He says he's my cousin, but that's really all I know. As someone who knows him, what's he like? You're not a noble, are you? Why does he trust you? I know he wanted to take me back to my parents himself, but instead you're doing it."
Benth sighed, giving up on the rudder. "Lyle is the crown prince of Shusoran, the Layan kingdom on the island we're going to. He's a very unusual noble in that he doesn't mind socializing with those beneath him in status. What matters to him are spirit, honor, and intellect. If you have those three qualities it doesn't matter to him who you are. Lyle and I met at a storytelling festival and I think he liked one of my tales, enough that he decided I was worth calling a friend."
He seemed to make a decision because he pushed away from the rail and walked back to the boat's tiny cabin. "As for myself," he said, opening the door, "no, I'm not a noble. My family runs a printing business in Rysel. You probably couldn't see it when Lyle brought you to my house last night, but it's right next door. We have one of the few printing presses in Aquata so we try to make a living with it making books and newsletters."
"And he trusts you."
"Yes. Now come back inside. I don't think Lyle would forgive me if I let you catch cold on the way back."
She followed him in and sat down on a wooden bench, which was also cold, but not nearly as bad as the weather outside. The closets in Landen's castle were bigger than this cabin, which smelled thickly of the damp air. Benth took the wheel and tested it with the barest of turns. "The rudder's still sticking," he said, "but it's bearable."
"So it won't affect our journey?"
"Not by much. Not unless the weather kicks up, but other than the cold it's pretty mild. We should be all right. I just don't want to trust the weather any more than I have to giving that it's already behaving strangely enough."
"I suppose so." She tried to remember a sunny Aquata, but she couldn't and she didn't know if that was because of her memory loss or because she had never been through this part of the world before.
"It just seems strange," she murmured, her thoughts returning to Lyle. "He must have gone to some trouble coming all the way to Landen to get me, and then he left. Where did he go? What's he going to do?"
"I don't suppose you heard that part of our conversation last night, did you?"
She remembered lurking in the stairwell of Benth's home, meaning to enter the living room to ask them a question. No, really she had wanted to take part in the conversation, but once she had overheard them she knew she could not walk in and innocently pretend she had not, nor could she have faced Lyle knowing what he had just confessed. The power of his raw emotions would have overwhelmed her and she didn't know him, could not remember ever having had a cousin who regarded her as the most important thing in the world.
Benth must have taken her silence to mean that she hadn't, which was true, because after what she had heard she had gone back upstairs. She never learned why Lyle had left her in Benth's care.
"Lyle's going back to Landen," he said, gazing out at the water ahead of them. "Don't worry, he's not going to do anything crazy. He just wants to see what kind of a man your fiance is."
Maia frowned. "I'm not a person to be fought over. I'm flattered by the attention, but..."
"But you really don't know Lyle well enough to make a judgment," said Benth. "That's why I'm taking you back to your parents. It's a matter of time. Lyle has to act now if he is to meet your fiance while he is at the greatest point of mourning your loss and you want your memory back posthaste, so the two of us are out here on a boat trying to beat the freezing of the lake."
"I understand that, but why are you here? You're risking a lot coming all this way just to deliver me. Lyle can fly in the shape of a dragon so the ice will never trap him. But if the ice freezes once we reach the other side you won't be able to come home until it thaws again, and you don't know when that will be. Did Lyle offer you some kind of reward for taking me back?"
Benth shrugged. "He said your parents would reward me, but that's not why I'm doing it. I'm doing it because Lyle would do the same in my place. He can't control what your parents do anyway. Listen, I helped Lyle back when you first disappeared. I wasn't about to stop helping him once he finally found you. He'll pay me back one way or another, but it doesn't matter to me whether that reward comes to me as meseta or not. Friendship is a nice thing, and I don't think the nobles get to reap the benefits of that nearly as often as they should."
"No." Maia curled up, hugging her knees to her chest. "Even among the Orakians the nobles had a special place for themselves. Nobles are friends only with nobles and there are so few of them. I had a special station only because Rhys fell in love with me. I love him, but I know that if a peasant boy had found me, then I would be with the peasants, and not the royals."
After a long pause she said, "Benth, can I ask you something?"
He nodded. "Go ahead."
"Am I from Shusoran? I remember hearing Lyle mention that I'm a princess, but..."
She couldn't finish, and for a while Benth was silent.
Finally, he said, "No, you're not from Shusoran. That is Lyle's kingdom, where your uncle reigns. You are from the neighboring island where your father rules. You are the princess of Cille."
"Then why are we going to Shusoran?"
"The rocks are dangerous around Cille. I can't sail the boat up to your father's kindgom. Instead we'll have to go through Shusoran. On the northern bank of the island is a land bridge that connects the two kingdoms. It only appears at certain times of day. I can only hope that despite this crazy weather the land bridge is still working."
"There's no reason not to be."
She smiled. "Rhys would have tried comforting me. I think Lyle would have too. Princesses are meant to be protected. But you don't do that."
"I am a commoner and there is no such thing as royalty in Rysel. I can only offer you what I offer anyone else. I have had no special lessons on how to behave in front of a princess."
"No, I'm not mad or anything. It's just... refreshing. I think I can see something of why Lyle trusts you. I am scared, but it's nice to know there's nothing wrong with it. I'm going to see my parents. I'm really going to see them. But I'm scared. Not of them, but of what will happen when I get my memories back.
"You see, when I get my memories back, I'm going to have to choose. I didn't overhear everything last night, but I did hear enough. I know back in the Layan kingdoms Lyle is my fiance, a fiance of convenience for our parents, but still a fiance. Back in the Orakian kingdom of Landen Rhys is my fiance, a fiance of love. No matter what feelings Rhys and I have for each other, that doesn't change what Lyle feels for me. He loves me and it's frightening to feel that kind of intensity from a person I can't remember. And when I do remember, will I want to return that love? Lyle said he didn't think I would, but I don't know. Will what I feel now remain when my memories return? Will I still love Rhys? Will I love Lyle? I have to recover my memories to know who I truly am, but I don't know what will happen after that and I will have to make a choice."
"Lyle knows, and he wouldn't have it any other way."
"I know, and I believe you when you say that. Lyle's aware of the risks, and I feel that no matter what happens his love is unconditional. That's not what bothers me."
"Rhys. If I choose Rhys, if he comes to rescue me, what will happen when he discovers I am a Layan princess, royalty among his most hated enemies? Will he still love me? Or will I be like Lyle, loving someone even though there may never be a chance of it being returned?"
Benth let go of the wheel and walked up to her. He squatted beside the wooden bench so he could look Maia in the eye. "Maia, you're pitying Lyle. He doesn't deserve that, nor do you. Lyle's love for you is not without reward. He is fulfilling one of your dearest wishes and healing a family driven apart by a tragic accident. He searched for you for six long months, traveled to different worlds, risking everything to save you. Now tell me that wasn't worth it, that he shouldn't have done it. Now what happens between you and Rhys has yet to be determined, but there are worse things to be than 'like Lyle.'"
He stood up and grabbed a blanket off a shelf. Without missing a beat he draped it around her. "Now take a nap. It'll clear your mind. We have a long while yet before we reach Shusoran."
She nodded reluctantly and closed her eyes, but all she could think about was of a blue-haired prince facing off against a bronze dragon with herself trapped between.
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