They had just finished jetting back and crossing onto the carrier when they heard a commotion on the other side of the massive ship’s landing pads. Reece jogged across the deck to see a crowd gathered at the opposite railing from where his group had boarded. Capt. Schwarzenegger was speaking over the edge of the railing and Taela was near her, standing stock still with her eyes open wide. He noticed Mica and Aspen there too; plus a few other soldiers and sailors he didn’t know as well.
“What’s going on?” he yelled once he got close enough for them to hear.
The captain turned, and upon seeing him, she let out a long breath and her shoulders slumped as a clear tension evaporated from her body. Taela spotted him a moment later and instantly ran to him, trying to melt herself into his body and hide from the world. Studying her, Reece thought that she was acting like she needed his protection. Protection from what, he didn’t know. Captain Schwarzenegger answered his unspoken question.
“Thank the goddess you’re back, Reece,” breathed the captain. “You need to resolve this situation. It’s been slowly escalating over the last couple of weeks.”
“What situation?” asked Reece, furrowing his brow as he tried to decipher what it had to do with him.
Looking over the edge, he saw the largest turtle he had ever seen. Its shell had to be at least ten meters across. It had a raft-like conveyance lashed to its shell. Calling it a raft did it a disservice, however. It was much more ornate than that. Standing in the conveyance were several Adaro. Considering their manner of dress and the way they held themselves; chins up, expressionless faces, and a rigid open posture, they looked to be royalty of a sort.
They glared at Reece, the fire in their narrowed eyes betraying their unhappiness and breaking their carefully constructed demeanor, especially when they noticed Taela tucked under his arm. It didn’t help that they were still several meters below them. From what Reece had seen, royals always desired the high ground. Anything less was an affront to them. Of course, the Adaro lived in the ocean, and he had no idea if the custom held true there as well. Turning his face from them, he glanced over to the captain, cocking his head to the side and furrowing his brow. Another member of the Adaro, a male, answered the unasked question for her. Reece recognized him from the banquet.
“The woman with the golden cloak and helm is Queen Karra of the Poseidis Adaro, a neighboring underwater kingdom to Hentropa, and our trading partners and allies. Her son, Prince Calintus is the very angry one with the trident. The rest are their retinue of guards and attendants,” explained the Adaro man evenly. “They have learned of Prince Toephan’s untimely death and have come to ask his widow and the only princess of Hentropa to be Prince Calintus’s intended. They are angry because she has already chosen another, and he is not of the Adaro, making him a usurper. Even though, as Princess, she has total control over her life-mate, this is widely considered taboo.”
“Okay,” said Reece, having a bad feeling about the situation. He had a good idea of what the problem might be but decided to play dumb for now. “What does that have to do with us? Is this usurper aboard the carrier?”
“Yes, he is now,” said the captain with an odd look on her face.
“All right, so who is he and how is this our fight?” asked Reece, crinkling his brow as his eyes narrowed.
“Well, the answer to your first question will also answer your second one,” teased Captain Schwarzenegger. “The usurper is you, Reece.”
“What exactly happened?” asked Reece, his eyes narrowing even more as Taela pressed herself even harder against him. “None of this makes any sense. I haven’t even been here.”
“You’ll have to ask her,” said the captain, indicating Taela as she continued to cling to Reece. “When they came to take her back to the depths, she claimed she had already chosen her life-mate. When they asked who, she named you. That made them very angry, and they are trying desperately to change her mind.”
Reece gazed down at Taela with shocked wonder. She timidly peered up, meeting his gaze with frightened, pleading eyes. “I want to stay here, Reece. The prince is a brat and I refuse to be his life-mate. But I have good news, Reece Danielson. I have chosen you as my life-mate. Just so you know, we are compatible, so everything is fine.”
“No, everything is not fine,” said Reece through gritted teeth.
He was angry but didn’t want to hurt the girl any further. Not knowing what else to do, he reached out with his mind to Karina. Of them all, she would know what was best. “Karina, I need you with me, now. I have a situation here.”
To Taela, he tried to let her down easy. “My... love life... is already far too complicated. I’m simply not available.”
“Are you rejecting me, Reece?” asked Taela evenly, her voice dropping a couple of octaves as she enunciated each word evenly yet harshly enough that it made the hairs stand up on Reece’s neck. “I don’t care about your other lovers. If you love me, that is enough.” He needed to find a different tactic.
“Taela, we barely know each other,” he explained, trying to reason with her. “Why do you think you want me?”
“Because you are brave, you rescued me. Because you are kind, you held me while I grieved. Because you are loving, you took care of me while I slept,” she answered without missing a beat. “And I am attracted to you. Don’t you think that’s important too? The prince does nothing for me and I’m required to choose a mate from eligible partners. You’re the only one worthy.”
“Well, that didn’t work,” said Reece in his mind to Karina who had just arrived and had heard a bit of the exchange.
“I need a minute to think,” said Reece out loud.
“Take your time, love,” said Taela.
Reece glanced at Karina who was giving him a raised eyebrow as she sent her thoughts back to him through the connection that he had established moments earlier. “What did you do?”
“Nothing,” he replied, trying to defend himself. He went on to explain the whole situation to Karina through the connection, including the unspoken threat. “So, you see, I need your help in getting out of this without anything bad happening. So, what have you got?”
“I think you should take her as your life-mate,” answered Karina.
“Very funny,” replied Reece dryly. “I need a real answer.”
“Ah, don’t you think she’s pretty?” asked Karina playfully.
“She’s beautiful, but that’s not the problem and you well know it,” shot back Reece, now getting irritated with the mischievous lilitu.
“Fine, you’re no fun,” answered the lilitu. “You’re right. This is a tough problem.”
“You can probably say yes for now,” thought Karina. “That will buy us some time to come up with a better solution.”
“That sounds like a terrible idea!” exclaimed Reece, his eyes growing wide at Karina. “If her mannerisms are any indication, she’s going to try to sleep with me every chance she gets!”
“So,” answered Karina, sounding annoyed. “Take one for the team, or probably several. Maybe she’ll tire of you after a while.”
“Really!?! That’s your solution?” thought Reece back to her before mulling it over in his head for a moment. “Actually, you may be on to something. I’ll just speed up the process and suggest that she has no attraction to me. Thanks for giving me the answer!”
Closing the connection with Karina, he stared down at Taela and connected with her mind. Her mind was strong, but thanks to the tricks that Chippo had imparted to him, he could do minimally invasive things to her mind without triggering her defenses and the battlespace. With the connection made, he formulated the suggestion in his head before sending it over to hers.
“As you think about it, you find you’re not actually attracted to Reece. It was a passing emotion because of the heat of the moment and your grief from the loss of Toephan. Now that you’ve spent more time with him, you find Reece boring and unappealing,” he suggested to Taela. “He would make a poor life-mate. It would be better to look elsewhere.”
It only took a moment for the effects to kick in. Taela stiffened before pushing herself away from Reece. Looking up into his eyes, she tilted her head and stared at him through narrowed eyes, a frown forming on her face while she crossed her arms.
“You’re right, Reece,” said Taela. “I think I just got caught up in the moment. You’ve been nice to me, but that’s no reason to choose you as my life-mate. I withdraw the offer but would still like to remain your friend if that’s okay with you.”
“That’s all I want, Taela,” replied Reece. “And for what it’s worth, I think you’re making the right decision. Things wouldn’t have worked out between us. I too, want to remain friends.”
“Good,” said Taela. “Then as my friend, please help me find a new life-mate. I trust you and will consider your recommendations.”
“I’m honored, really,” said Reece in shock. “But wouldn’t your own people be better suited to the task?”
“Normally, yes,” answered Taela. “But I’m a princess and can only marry a prince in my society. Once, there were many honorable and appealing options, but the lacedons have wiped out many of us. All the brave and good princes helped lead the hunting packs and were killed one by one. The only princes left are the scheming cowardly ones, and no normal citizen would dare attempt to rise above their station in so public a way. They would be beaten, tortured, and murdered by the offended prince. So, you see, I can’t rely on my people for this. Only an outsider, who is outside of our rules, could hope to win my affection. I think that’s why I chose you so hastily. I knew what was coming and needed to get out of it.”
“Okay, Taela,” said Reece. “I think I understand. My friends and I will help you in any way we can. There’s a lot of good folks here, honest men that are not afraid to fight.”
“Thank you,” said Taela. “You are a true friend.
“You’re welcome,” said Reece. “Now, we need to get rid of this cowardly prince, don’t you think?”
“Yes, but I’ll need your help,” she replied. “Will you agree to stand as my life-mate for now, just until you can find me a suitable replacement? Don’t worry, I had a lapse in judgment before. Now I know we aren’t a good match.”
Reece mulled the idea over in his head. Part of him thought it was a good idea and would avoid bad terms with the Adaro. Another part of him worried that it could lead to unintended consequences. In the end, the decision was taken out of his hands by a booming voice emanating from below the other side of the deck.
“If that is your decision Taela, then I claim the ancient rite of “Lok Toduure!” announced the prince, loud enough for everyone to hear. “Let’s see how the usurper does when he doesn’t have his females to hide behind!”
“What say you, pretend usurper?” demanded the prince.
“What’s he yelling about, Taela?” asked Reece, a bad feeling creeping into his gut. “What’s Lok Toduure?”
Taela hung her head while her shoulders slumped like all the wind had gone out of her sails. “It means that I must choose him as my life-mate now. That is all.”
One of the other Adaro, the one that had talked to Reece earlier cut in. “No, it doesn’t, princess,” he argued. “I’m the first one to complain of your choice in this drylander, but at least he has honor, unlike the mewling prince below.”
Looking at Reece, he said, “Lok Toduure is an archaic rite of our people. It hasn’t been invoked in living memory. It simply hasn’t been removed from the code of our laws because no one has taken it seriously in thousands of tides. This prince must be desperate to be claimed by Taela. He’s probably only interested in her for her beauty and the status it would bring him.”
“And to make it worse, his father, the king, is undoubtedly putting pressure on him to make sure he is selected by her. It’s the only thing that makes any sense. Even so, only his anger could have driven him to claim the right. There’s too much at stake. Basically, as a form of recompense when a member of royalty has been slighted, he can simply take what he feels he is owed. Since it doesn’t permit him to take Taela’s choice, as her rights trump his, he can still remove the offending party, namely you, from the sands of fate. You have the right of refusal, in which you simply walk away, and he gets chosen by Taela.”
“Wait a second,” said Reece. “I thought you just said her choice trumps his rite. So why does she have to choose him?”
“Only because there are no other prospects,” answered the Adaro man. “Normally, she could simply choose someone else. So, unless the prince wanted to challenge every other eligible prince until there were none left, the choice would be left to her. Unfortunately, there are already no other viable candidates.”
“Your laws are giving me a migraine,” said Reece. “So, what if I accept his challenge?”
“Then a trial by combat ensues to set things right. Unfortunately, it’s a battle to the death. The challenger gets to choose the battleground, and it must be witnessed by ten representatives from each side. It’s repugnant, but the law is the law,” answered the Adaro man.
“So, you see,” said Taela, cutting back in. “I can’t ask that of you and my people need the royal line to continue. Without me, that is no longer possible. Too many have died. I must choose Prince Calintus as my life-mate.”
Reece didn’t entirely understand why, but that idea really pissed him off. He thought it through for a moment. He was still in great shape, having sparred with Angel and Naeva whenever time allowed. Plus, his battles with Karina and Aika in the battlespace had given him a mountain of experience in combat of many sorts.
“So, what kind of battle is this?” Reece asked the man.
“Typically, it’s tridents, but any melee weapon would be acceptable,” answered the man, looking at Reece through his brilliant purple eyes with newfound respect. “You’re actually considering this aren’t you?”
“Nope. I’m not considering it,” deadpanned Reece. “I’m going to do it.”
Before anyone could say or do anything, Reece walked to the edge of the carrier and glared down on the prince. “I accept your challenge!”
The blustering prince opened and closed his mouth several times, whether to offer a retort or simply to breath, Reece couldn’t tell. What he could tell was that the prince hadn’t expected his challenge to be accepted. That made Reece smile. He turned back to the Adaro man who had been explaining things to him.
“Now what?” asked Reece. “When does this thing start?”