The next few days of training went on much like the first. Kobi awoke early enough to eat breakfast and go visit Rick at the smithy before dawn. He was still unable to catch Trayn off guard, but stopping himself from being hit or knocked down was becoming easier. Even covered with as many, or more, bruises than his first day, Kobi didn’t complain or ask for rest. The determination in his eyes was unchanged as he rose again and again from Trayn’s brutal attacks.
Kobi studied Trayn’s style; how he drew his sword at lightning speeds with little preparation and countered his attacks with movements much swifter than his own. But although he saw Trayn’s attacks coming, he couldn’t make his body react and move that quickly and ended up on his back more often than not. He could only strive to increase his speed and use all of his senses to predict Trayn’s next move.
A few times, Kobi spotted Rick at the ground’s entrance, watching them as he scribbled on a notepad; research for the sword designs, no doubt. But, sometimes, Rick just watched them, leaning against the wall, arms folded.
Winiki’s training was progressing far more rapidly than Kobi’s. She and Kloud were already at the sparring stage and she was giving Kloud a pretty hard time.
“Don’t worry,” said Trayn at the onsen the night of the third training day. “Winiki has loved the sword since she knew what it was. She’s been sneaking out, teaching herself the basics for years now without permission. Of course she is going to advance a little faster than you.”
“I guess,” said Kobi, still feeling low. “But, she’s doing so well and, even though I’m trying hard, I don’t feel like I’m improving.”
“Trust me, you’re improving,” said Trayn coolly. “Even with your eyes closed, you’re avoiding and countering my attacks more frequently. The speed of your draw is faster and more powerful than ever. For three days of just holding a sword, you’re doing much better than I expected. I think Kaiyen will be very pleased when he returns.”
“You really think so?” asked Kobi, lifting his head from its resting spot.
Trayn nodded. “Winiki’s skillful, I definitely have to give her that, but Kloud is being easy on her. If he was serious, she wouldn’t be able to touch him at all.”
“He’s that good?” asked Kobi.
Trayn smiled. “Even I have a hard time defeating him and I surely don’t win every sparring match. I know when he’s fighting seriously and when he is just playing around. He lets Winiki get him.”
“But why?” asked Kobi, remembering that all too familiar sting when blade crosses skin.
“Who knows?” shrugged Trayn. “Maybe to boost her confidence, maybe to protect her and avoid hurting her. He could even like her and want to show her that somehow.”
Trayn said that with a sigh as he rolled his eyes. Kobi could understand Trayn’s annoyance. Kobi felt the same when girls showed their interest in Raili, although he’d get his fair share of love letters as well.
“Speaking of Kloud,” said Trayn, getting out of the pool and drying himself. “He and I agreed to have a sparring match of our own tonight.”
“Oh really?” said Kobi, still soaking. “I’d like to watch.”
“No, you should sleep and build your strength for tomorrow,” said Trayn, wrapping clean bathrobes around himself. “I’d be asleep myself if I didn’t have my own training to attend to.”
Kobi had forgotten Trayn was ordered to continue his own practice as well as train him and Winiki. He felt a bit guilty.
“Alright,” said Kobi. “Have a good fight and you sleep, too.”
Trayn nodded, waving as he headed back upstairs. Kobi remained in the blue water, enjoying the relaxing feeling of the heat and his tingling skin. But his heart was not completely carefree. Soon his thoughts drifted to Raili. Sai Thayne said the Cellians were treating him well. But Kobi had a bad feeling that pushed him to work hard daily through the pain of his training. Something wasn’t right.
Kobi returned to his rooms and climbed into bed, his wounds nearly healed and his body worn-out, but his mind refused to rest. He tossed and turned, trying to will himself to sleep, but to no avail. Eventually, Kobi gave up on sleeping all together, dressed, and left his rooms for a walk through the castle, this time, planning to find the King and Queen’s quarters.
Kobi passed Trayn’s apartment and the up-leading staircase-which he was now certain led to Winiki’s rooms-and walked down the lit, spiral stairway toward the Grand Hall. But just as he was about to enter the Hall, Kobi saw Kaiyen walk quickly from the hallway of the hanging portraits and turn down the corridor leading to the large conference room, looking tired and holding his left shoulder. Kobi backed into the darkness and waited until Kaiyen was out of sight before following.
Kobi quickly followed Kaiyen to the conference room and put his ear to the door. Nothing. It was empty. Kobi cautiously moved on and up another flight of stairs, listening for movement in the wind.
As he got to the top of the stairs, Kobi heard movement coming at him from behind and quickly hid behind a statue of a King that looked like Sai Thayne. Kobi breathed a sigh mixed with relief and annoyance as pink pajamas stopped at the top of the stairs, looking around cautiously.
“Winiki,” he whispered. “Winiki, over here.”
Winiki started, then rushed to him.
“What are you doing here?” asked Kobi, partly annoyed.
“I could ask you the same thing,” said Winiki, holding her damp ponytail. “I saw you sneaking up here so I followed you. Do you know how much trouble you’d be in for coming here without permission?”
“Kaiyen’s back,” Kobi whispered. “I think he’s here to report something about Raili.”
Kobi and Winiki ducked as footsteps approached and Kobi peeked up in time to see Sai Thayne walk passed them.
“Father’s going to his study,” said Winiki, “In a hurry.”
“Kaiyen must be waiting for him,” said Kobi, preparing to follow as soon as the King was out of sight.
“What are you doing?” said Winiki, pulling back on Kobi’s arm. “If they caught us listening to private matters of the King we’d be punished! There are limits of toleration even with his children.”
“You can go back if you want,” said Kobi, gently removing her hand. “But I’m going.”
“You know, you can be such an idiot,” Winiki sighed. Kobi smiled. Raili would call him that when he lost an argument, too. “Fine, I’ll show you where Father’s study is.”
Checking that the coast was clear, Winiki led the way quickly down the hall, stopping only to hide behind another statue.
She pointed to a door a few feet away and Kobi crept to it, putting his ear close. Kaiyen and Sai Thayne were already talking.
“Really, My Lord, all I need is sleep tonight,” Kaiyen was saying. He sounded so tired. “I’ll be fine in the morning.”
“If you’re sure,” said Sai Thayne, not sounding very convinced. “What have you to report?”
“As you’ve commanded, I’ve gone to The Black City of Doron,” said Kaiyen, “and have spoken to their new chief, Sage, of the Zeelian Harass. He agrees that we may be unable to retrieve Raili without bloodshed. The burial rituals for Former Chief Cannon, have been completed and the acceptance ceremonies for Chief Sage started today and will last a fortnight, but thereafter he promises aid if the time arises.”
“Did you have to fight them?” asked Sai Thayne.
“No, Majesty,” said Kaiyen. “I crossed paths with soldiers of Varia. Naturally, we don’t exactly see eye to eye.”
“That is unfortunate, indeed, given that-“
“Please, Sai Thayne,” said Kaiyen. “My bad blood with the people of Varia has not affected my loyalty to you or Zire. Please do not worry yourself with my past or current troubles.”
“It’s not your loyalty that concerns me, Captain Kaiyen,” said the King.
“I’ve made my choice, Sir,” said Kaiyen. “I have no regrets.”
“Very well,” said the King after a moment of silence. “Continue.”
“The Cellians are on the move,” continued Kaiyen. “There is significantly more action outside of the caves than there was four days ago.”
“Do you think they may be preparing for battle?” asked Sai Thayne.
“Yes,” answered Kaiyen. “This, once and for all, proves their capture of Raili Saio.”
“Indeed,” said the King.
“Kobi!” Winiki whispered harshly.
Kobi heard footsteps coming up the stairs and down the dark hallway and dived behind a large floor flowerpot next to the door of the King’s study, ducking out of sight.
He watched as two men walked past the statue Winiki was hiding behind and knocked on the door. One of the men had dark red hair and skin that looked pale-tanned in comparison to the bronze skin tone of the man walking beside him with a pleasant smile on his face, Bran.
It was Kaiyen who answered the door and was immediately on alert. “What is the meaning if this?”
“Relax, Kaiyen,” said Sai Thayne from inside the study. “I’ve been expecting them.”
Kaiyen reluctantly stood aside and, let the men enter.
“Kobi,” whispered Winiki when the door had closed again. “That man is from Cella.”
But Kobi already knew that, remembering their distinct look from his and Kaiyen’s close encounter in Cellian territory four days prior.
“I trust you received my dolphin?” said the man. His accent was thick like the other Cellian soldiers.
“Yesterday morning,” said Sai Thayne coolly. “Please, welcome yourself to a seat. Captain Kaiyen, if you would sit as well.”
“With all due respect, My King, I’d prefer to remain standing,” said Kaiyen.
“Very well,” said Sai Thayne, no doubt, sensing Kaiyen’s restraint. “What have you come to discuss, Sub Leader Balin of Cella?”
Kobi and Winiki exchanged surprised glances and pressed their heads back to the wall. Why was someone of so much importance there in person? And at this late hour?
“First, please allow me to apologize,” said Balin. “My father, even on his death bed, wants nothing but power and glory. For that, he ordered one of the twin sons of Zire’s Royal Family captured and held captive until his powers arise on his fourteenth year.”
“So you knew-,” started Kaiyen.
“About your thirteen year land haven for the Young Princes?” said Balin. “Indeed.”
“How?” said Sai Thayne. “Who told you?”
“Now, now, Sai Thayne of Zire,” said Balin coolly. “I come only to keep the peace, risking my life doing so without my father’s blessing. Revealing our informant isn’t a part of my agenda.”
There was silence. Kobi wondered if Sai Thayne was considering the option of disposing of Cella’s Sub-Leader.
“You said that your father wants power and glory,” said Kaiyen, breaking the silence. “What exactly does he plan to do with Raili?”
Kobi pressed his ear harder to the wall, making sure to get every word.
“Use him, of course, to make Cella the most powerful nation in Airion,” said Balin.
“Then why not take both?” asked Bran. “Surely-“
“My father didn’t see fit to risk that kind of power,” said Balin. “The twins together could destroy us from the inside. Naturally, my father was aware of this, so he opted, instead, to take only one of them.”
“And eliminate the other,” said Kaiyen.
“Regrettably,” said Balin, not sounding very regretful. “However, I was pleased to hear Young Kobi Saio was rescued by none other than you, Captain Kaiyen. What were you doing in our territory anyway?”
“Hunting,” said Kaiyen.
“Balin of Cella,” said Sai Thayne. “I’m honored you have graced my chamber with an apology on your father’s behalf, however, that is not your reason for being here.”
“Very sharp, High King of Zire,” said Balin, his voice sounding amused. “I come to propose an arrangement.”
“An arrangement?” It was the King’s turn to sound amused. “You do understand that we are ready and willing to go to war for my son’s safe return to his rightful homeland. My apologies, but I’m not in the mood for arrangements.”
“Open war could cause another civil rebellion in Zire,” said Balin. “No doubt you know that. But what of a Futari Duel?”
“A Futari Duel?” said Kaiyen. “From the duels of old? A fight to the death between the strongest warriors of two nations?”
“The same,” said Balin. “Except, since we’re trying to have the least amount of bloodshed, let’s just duel until someone lays unconscious or admits defeat. I, the strongest warrior of Cella in my father’s stead, will go against your strongest warrior. I think the up and coming Trayn Saio would be a great fit. The winner keeps Raili Saio.”
“What makes you think,” said Kaiyen, his voice icy, “Raili Saio is yours to bargain with?”
“Well, he is in our custody at the moment, and only my father and I know his true identity,” said Balin coolly. “He’s receiving only the best care in our Healing Chamber. Due to my father’s condition, I’m giving the orders now. I could, I don’t know, change a few circumstances. Make things a bit more, uncomfortable, for our Royal Guest?”
“You have so much power,” said Bran. “Why don’t you just release him now?”
“Be not fooled by my presence here. I haven’t forgotten where my loyalty lies,” said Balin. “Although I may not agree with my father’s methods, I do understand his reasoning. You are weakened by the loss of your dear son and his power. We are strengthened by it. I’m giving you a noble chance to retrieve your prince without bloodshed. I know, as do you, that going to war, with a twin on each side, is likely to destroy both of our kingdoms. I’m sure we both want to avoid that.”
Silence filled the room. “I will agree to the Futari Duel under the conditions that the duel continues until someone admits defeat or is knocked unconscious. If someone is killed, the killer forfeits the duel. Furthermore, the winner of the duel claims Raili.”
“Splendid! It will be held inside the Great Coulee in seven day’s time at the noon hour,” said Balin. “However, one more agreement must be made. Kobi Saio is not to attend.”
Kobi’s heart leaped at the mention of his name. He had to stay here? Did they really expect him to do that?
“And why is that?” asked Sai Thayne.
“We wouldn’t want the brothers to take matters into their own hands, now would we?” said Balin coolly. “Raili Saio will also be kept safely inside Cella, to be released only if Zire wins his freedom.”
There was a long moment of silence where Kobi could hear only his enraged heart beating into his throat.
“Agreed,” said the King, finally. “Kobi will remain in Zire while Raili shall remain in The Cavern City until we have won his freedom.”
“Such confidence,” said Balin. “Let’s hope Trayn Saio can live up to your assurance. I will send word if any alterations occur.”
Kobi ducked behind the flowerpot again as the door opened and both Balin and Bran walked out of the room. Kobi, strained to see Balin’s face before he turned down the hallway, and thought he saw something of a smile touching his lips. He looked only a few years older than Trayn. It took an enormous amount of willpower to not jump out and demand Raili’s return. But even in his rage, Kobi knew he was nowhere near strong enough to take on the Sub Leader of Cella, so he remained quiet and put his ear back to the wall.
“Why did you agree to that?” Kaiyen was asking, his voice barely audible. “He specifically wants Trayn to fight, when I’m obviously the strongest warrior in Zire, save for you.”
“He wants Trayn because he’s the eldest Prince of Zire, and heir to the throne,” said Sai Thayne. “They have equal positions and he can make a louder statement by defeating a symbol of this nation, than its general.”
“But he isn’t Zire strongest fighter, Majesty,” protested Kaiyen. Kobi could hear desperation creeping into his voice. “Send me in his stead. I will fight the duel for Raili’s freedom.”
“Do you not have faith in your apprentice, Captain Kaiyen?” asked the King. “Your training?”
There was a pause. “Highness, I do not trust this,” said Kaiyen, his voice level again. “The Futari rules state that the nation’s strongest fighters are to face off in battle. Balin’s specific request for Trayn is a direct violation of that rule. It is not his choice to make. Even if Trayn wins, Balin doesn’t strike me as a graceful loser. With Raili locked in Cella, they could still deny his return.” Kaiyen fell silent then spoke again. “I apologize for my forwardness. I do not mean to second-guess your judgment. But I can’t help but distrust his motives for being here tonight. Everything he told us tonight could have been said through a messenger dolphin or a soldier, but he came here in person. Why?”
“You’re right and just in your mistrust for this situation, Captain Kaiyen,” said Sai Thayne. “I’m quite sure there’s an ulterior motive for Balin’s actions. Although his father, Topian of Cella’s, placement in his plans and the reasons why he decided to come here in person are still unknown, we’ll just have to be on our guard for now. There’s not much we can do with Raili still in their grasp.”
“And what of Trayn?” asked Kaiyen.
“Tell him what has happened tonight and give him the choice to fight or stand aside,” said the King. “It was he who was challenged, so he must be the one to refuse or accept it.”
“It will be as you say, My King,” said Kaiyen and Kobi ducked once more as the door to the study opened again and Kaiyen walked out and down the hall, his usually calm and beautiful face now cold and twisted with anger.
“Aren’t you two supposed to be in bed?” Came the voice of Sai Thayne from inside the study. He didn’t sound angry, just tired, but Kobi and Winiki both jumped and hid behind their perspective hiding spots, trying to make themselves invisible. “Come here, Kobi, Winiki.”
The children slowly got up and crept into the study. The King was sitting behind a large desk with his hands folded. He didn’t look as tired as he sounded.
“I’m sorry, Father, it was my fault,” said Kobi.
“No, not entirely,” said Winiki quickly. “I-.”
But she was cut off by a hand from Sai Thayne. “Whatever the reason, what is done cannot be undone. But I’m tired and haven’t the strength to think of a proper punishment for spying on a covert audience, so I will call this offense a warning,” said Sai Thayne managing a smile. “Be sure to not get caught eavesdropping again.”
“Yes, Sir,” said Winiki and Kobi at once.
“Very well,” said Sai Thayne. “Now off to bed with you. Another hard day of training awaits you tomorrow.”
“Umm, Father?” said Kobi. “About the duel, I-“
“Kobi,” said Sai Thayne, “aren’t you supposed to be pretending you never heard of such plans, being that it was never meant for your ears to hear.”
“Umm, yes, Sir,” said Kobi. “Sorry.”
Kobi and Winiki left without another word and ran all the way back to their apartment hall.
“That was close,” said Kobi, breathing hard. “I thought he was going to yell at us.”
“Father never yells,” said Winiki, clutching her chest. “He just calmly lays down his punishment.”
“Did you hear what he said?” asked Kobi.
“He said not to eavesdrop again,” said Winiki.
“No,” said Kobi, smiling. “He said, ‘don’t get caught eavesdropping again.'”
“Well, that doesn’t give you permission to do it,” said Winiki pushing Kobi in the chest.
“I know,” said Kobi. “But it does leave the option open. I just can’t get caught next time.”
“You were the trouble maker, weren’t you?” asked Winiki, narrowing her eyes.
Kobi smiled. “No. Actually, Raili was the one always getting us in trouble.”