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For You, Always
by Rune Lai

"Well, Rhys, this is Cille."

Lyle stood aside to give the Orakian prince an unobstructed view of the city.

"I would welcome you," he continued, "but it's not my place."

Cille was a city of majesty. Protected by the buffer of Shusoran, Lyle's own kingdom, the citizens of Cille could build their city on the basis of aesthetics rather than war-minded practicality. But because of Cille's isolation, the presence of strangers did not go unnoticed. Lyle they recognized and greeted with tentative smiles, but they regarded him with marked curiosity because aside from his foreign companions, he had two cyborgs in his company. They had no idea who the girl with him was, but the presence of the cyborgs could mean only one thing: the man accompanying Lyle was Prince Rhys of Landen, the Orakian who dared to pursue their beloved Princess Maia.

"I doubt I'd get a welcome anyway," said Rhys. He glanced warily at the hostile faces.

"They will not attack you while I am your escort," said Lyle. "They might not understand why I've brought you here, but they'll give me the benefit of a doubt, no matter how reluctantly."

"Do you really think the king will meet with me?"

"Rhys, how can he afford not to when you seek the hand of his daughter? Maia has been waiting for you and he hears very little else from her. Her keeps her secluded in the castle, so word of her 'infatuation' does not spread. Though Cille is not on the forefront of the battle with the Orakians they are still very much opposed to them."

"Are you?"

"Hm?" Lyle looked at Rhys mildly.

"You're a Layan and you've known I was an Orakian the entire time. Why have you been helping me?"

Why indeed.

"I've decided to trust in Maia's judgment," said Lyle. "She told me that not all Orakians are bad and I've since found out for myself that that is true." Then, diverting the subject, he added, "I hope you're found that to be true of Layans as well."

Rhys hesitated, perhaps remembering the duel Lyle had fought with him, seemingly without provocation less than a week ago. Lyle had later called it a test. Rhys hadn't entirely bought that, expecting an ulterior motive. What the Orakian prince hadn't realized was that while an ulterior motive certainly existed, he had put the wrong reason behind the motive.

Even if they eventually discovered a battle on their hands in Cille, figurative or literal, Lyle would not have tested Rhys purely for his fighting prowess, but he had been more than willing to test his determination and compassion. Rhys had passed. Lyle knew that from watching so much of his journey. Maia had chosen well.

Finally, Rhys nodded. "I have. You haven't been what I've expected, nor has Maia." Again he hesitated. "But Maia is princess here. If her memory has returned, would she still be the person I knew?"

"I don't know," Lyle replied. "I do not know what she was like back in Landen. But the Maia of Cille is a kind and gentle soul who still cares about you. If... if she didn't know you were coming for her, she would no doubt have fled her father's castle to search for you. When the two of you meet, then you can decide for yourself if she is the woman you knew."

Lyle did not like leading Rhys into the castle grounds. He knew that everything he did from the moment he had stepped in Cille to the time he brought Rhys before the king was in defiance of his uncle, and even his royal parents. The children of nobility did not often marry by choice. The king of Cille might dote on his only daughter in many ways, but this would not be one of them. Lyle had convinced his own parents to allow Rhys to travel through the kingdom of Shusoran to see Maia, but he had told them that it was in pursuit of peace between the Layans and Orakians, and not that he sought to reunite the pair.

He knew also that by leading Rhys to Maia, and should the prince accept her, he would be risking the goodwill of the citizens of Shusoran and Cille. Though Lyle's own engagement to Maia had never been formally announced, the popular pairing of the prince of Shusoran and princess of Cille had long been expected. They might vilify him for selling out, for giving up, but the people loved Maia. If they could forgive anyone of an ill-fated love it would be her.

The group of them, Lyle, Rhys, Lena, and the two cyborgs, had to sneak into the castle through the cellar. It was as ignoble an entrance as Lyle could think of, but unfortunately the only way inside. The gates to the castle had been sealed. No doubt Rhys's presence in the city had been reported to the king, and his highness had taken pains to thwart him. Lyle knew of this alternate route, meant to be used if the castle was ever invaded, but it was not a dignified one.

They came up inside the castle grounds, a tranquil place with the bustle of the city locked safely outside the gates. From there Lyle took them around and inside the palace. He had to be discreet, which was difficult with a group of five people, and he did not want to hurt the castle guards, many of whom he recognized. Thankfully Mieu and Wren kept Rhys muzzled and muted by their warning glares if not their hands. Rhys would follow his lead, for now.

When they arrived in the throne room they found Maia, perched fearfully beside her father's throne. She had been in conversation with her father, but had broken off her words when the group stepped into the hall. Her eyes darted immediately to Rhys, and for a moment it seemed she would break towards him and run, but between her and him stood her father and his guards.

The king of Cille swung his gaze towards them, quivering in barely controlled rage. "Lyle, what is the meaning of this?" he demanded. "First you request an audience with Maia and myself, and then you bring this Orakian in with you? You know what Maia is to us!" Though the king was forty years of age, he was still very much a shrewd and hearty warrior. Defying him would not be easy.

Rhys stepped forward, sword still sheathed for now, and met the eyes of the king. "Your highness, I am Prince Rhys of Landen. I've come to speak with your daughter Maia so that I may know her mind. Then, if we find each other to be who we thought we were, I should like to follow through with the ceremony your dragon interrupted."

"My dragon?" The king glared past Rhys and Lyle turned away. " Listen, Orakian, Maia is the sole heir to the kingdom of Cille. I will not allow you to carry her away!"

Rhys bowed his head in acknowledgement. "Then if she wishes, I will stay here. I will learn your customs, your traditions."

"You will do no such thing! I'll show you how we handle Orakian spies in my country!"

Lyle had not considered that the king himself would attack Rhys. Laya's Law forbade taking a human life. Surely his uncle had not forgotten that. Maia shrieked, but her cry fell on deaf ears. Dryads, hidden in the recesses of the ceiling, flew down to protect their master, and at the king's approach Rhys dropped back a step and drew his sword.

Mieu and Wren stepped up immediately to defend their lord. Lena, too, readied herself to fight. Though she was not a warrior, the king was her ancestral enemy and perhaps in him she could see justification for the millennia old hatred. Lyle could barely move.

A Dragon Knight could easily have stopped this. His bronze-scaled form would fill the throne room. Clawed hands could separate the two sides without resorting to bloodshed. People would listen to a dragon. He could force them apart and make them see what their fighting did to Maia.

But Lyle did not change, did not take wing and fly. The thought that Rhys would recognize the dragon who had stolen away his bride did not occur to him. He refrained because he found this battle greater than himself. The prize was no longer his to claim. He could fight on neither side and win, and forcing himself between them would only create a third. Maia deserved better.

Rhys could not hurt the king. The dryads kept getting in the way, and the useful critters enveloped the king beneath layers of their healing techniques. Mieu, Wren, and Lena couldn't hurt the dryads enough before they started healing each other and the king himself was no stranger to battle. Eventually Rhys would wear down. The group would not be able to break through.

Lyle looked at Maia, but she had eyes only for Rhys. Sadly, he wondered if she had even noticed him, or if the mere presence of Rhys was so strong she could think of nothing else. Lyle's heart lay heavy in his chest. He could not win, but he could choose the winner--for Maia.

He called up the power, sent it racing from the core of his body, down his arms, and into his hands. The gra technique struck the myriad of dryads with lightning fury. It only stunned them for a short while, but enough that Wren and Mieu could slay them before they had a chance to recover. The two cyborgs otherwise ignored them, but Lena nodded gratefully to him. Lyle felt sick, unworthy of any kind of gratitude.

A dryad broke away from the group to attack him. He crushed it with his staff, but not without remorse. "Your highness, please! Stop fighting! Think of Maia!"

But the king paid him no mind. Without the dryads the battle dwindled from a melee to a duel between Rhys and the king. For a while they seemed evenly matched, the king making up for his age with experience and techniques, but then Rhys's endurance proved the stronger. The prince of Landen would not back down. Maia meant too much for him. Even if the king managed to defeat him, Lyle knew that Rhys would return again and again for as long as he was able.

Perhaps in that respect Lyle could see some of himself Rhys. Fearless. Dedicated. But Rhys had not hesitated to make his feelings towards Maia known, and perhaps that was the difference. Women did not marry dragons with hearts of bronze. A heart needed to be yielding, a bed on which to rest and not a fortress in which to hide.

Rhys defeated the king. Lyle had expected as much. Though the prince of Landen did not have the blood of a dragon he fought like one. Lyle's uncle yielded and when the sanity returned to his eyes, Lyle could see that Rhys had impressed him. Maia cried with joy. They both had survived.

Lyle smiled sadly to himself and backed away from the scene. No matter what happened from here onward, he had gone against his family, possibly destroyed the marriage that was meant to unite their kingdoms, and there would no doubt be hell to pay at some future time. Princes were not supposed to be traitors.

Rhys had asked him why he had helped him, why Lyle had helped him leave the world of Landen, helped him sail across the ocean to find Maia. The prince of Landen would never have found her again without his help. Lyle tried hard to hold his feelings in his heart, but they welled up in his eyes as he saw the glow that spread across Maia's face. Everything had been for her--always--to see that smile upon her face as she ran towards Rhys and threw her arms around the man she loved.

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