Chapter 12: Ayora

Two weeks passed. In that time Lystin became a common sight about the palace. At first some guards would attempt to stop him from entering certain, restricted, areas, but someone would always come along and whisper who he was. This amused the thief. He and Thane had to be the most well known secret in the entire palace complex. During this time, Lystin began actively pulling Thane out of meetings for his lunch. If he didn't, often the new king would get stuck in conferences all day and become a wreck by day's end.

It was during these lunches that Lystin would serve as Thane's sounding board. The young royal alternately wept, raged and complained to the thief. Lystin soothed him, always making an effort to send Thane back to the ravenous vultures he called a court in a better mood then when he arrived. It was about the only thing he could do. That and when Thane had a spare moment teach him to play his flute.

At the end of the two weeks that followed Thane's coronation marked another change. Lystin was close to becoming a nervous-wreck, his watchers following him everywhere. Knowing he was risking a break down if he didn't do something about it, the thief told his king he might be back late, saddled Black Light and walked out of the city with his horse.

As always when he left the palace, the feeling of being watched intensified. Once outside of the city, he mounted Light and let the horse have his head. When he felt they were far enough away from the capital, he left the road and let Light trot for another few minutes before halting him. Lystin removed the horse's bridle and gave him the command to stay within sight. Light ambled off and began to graze.

Often between commissions the thief found he had lots of time to kill so he sometimes worked with Black Light, teaching him new commands and occasionally tricks.

Not wanting to look crazy if this didn't work was why the thief had left the city in the first place. Now he called out. "Enough of this frigging sneaking about. I'm sick of it and sick and tired of you following me about. Either show yourself or go the hell away!"

Moments slipped away and nothing happened. Lystin cursed. He'd really wanted this to work. Suddenly he felt the back of his neck prickling and barely managed to throw himself out of the path of a dagger. Rolling to his feet, his own knives unsheathed and in his hands, he found himself facing an unfamiliar assassin. That relieved him a bit. He hated killing people he knew.

Before either of them could make another move, a flash of lightening illuminated the sky. The pair both instinctively looked up and saw a red shape hurtling towards the assassin. Before it hit, Lystin thought he heard someone scream shrilly. "Death from above!"

The assassin reached back and grabbed the thing currently attacking his back and hurled it to the ground. Using the opportunity so kindly presented to him, Lystin threw his dagger and successfully hit the assassin in the chest, From the way the man all but instantly crumpled, the thief assumed he'd gotten a lucky heart shot.

Lystin reclaimed his dagger, wiping it on his pants before returning it to its sheath. Turning, he looked over for the thing that had attacked the assassin. He owed it. However the creature was missing. That was until he felt something alight on his shoulder and a soft tug on his hair.

The thief swiveled his head and saw a red, orange and gold bird preening his hair carefully. "Now why would a pretty bird like you attack an assassin like that?" He wondered aloud.

The bird stopped preening him, looked him straight in the eyes and replied. "Because otherwise the scary bad-man would have gotten you."

Lystin gaped. "Y-You…you?…What are you?"

"A phoenix of course, silly. Your phoenix in fact. Did you see the way I beat the scary bad-man all by myself? Father will be proud."

"You beat him? I was under the impression it was my dagger that killed him."

"You helped a bit." Wilting under the thief's glare, the young phoenix finally said. "Alright you beat him. But I helped!"

"That you did and thanks. Now where in the world did you come from?"

"I came with the guards. We've been keeping you safe. That scary bad-man showed up a week or two ago and followed you into the place where the bad unicorn-man lives and we couldn't follow to stop him."

"Wait a second. You and a bunch of guards have been following me around for weeks? Why in all the gods' names would you do something stupid like that?"

The bird shook her head. "Not stupid, but can't say. I promised."

"Do you know where the guards are?" At the phoenix's nod Lystin continued. "Will you go tell them to stop following me around, bird?"

"I'm not bird. I'm Ayora."

"Alright then Ayora, will you please go?"

"Ok." Ayora replied, sidling along his arm. She gave him an entreating look and it took the thief a little while to realize she needed help into the air. He bent his whole body and launched her high into the air. She wheeled about and then sped back the way he'd come on Light. Suddenly remembering his horse he looked over and found Black Light watching him, grass hanging out of his mouth. "Go back and eat. Nothing you need to worry about." The horse watched him a while longer before beginning to make inroads on a clump of clover he'd found.

Shaking his head, Lystin began to puzzle out some of the things the little phoenix had told him. He was interesting finding out who the bad unicorn-man was and why she and the guards couldn't enter the palace walls. Before long, Ayora dropped back down onto his shoulder.

"They said they can't do that. They'd be in big, big trouble if something bad happened or someone who wasn't nice got you."

Lystin swore colourfully. "Who'd get them into trouble?"

"Nuh-uh. Can't say."

The thief muttered another curse. "So who's the bad unicorn-man?"

The bird shrugged. "Don't know. He's just the bad unicorn-man who hid the really bad mage-man who tried to kill King Retlin. The great one stopped him and chased him away and he came here where the bad unicorn-man hid him until the great one found out and came and killed the really bad mage-man. Papa says not all unicorn-men are bad that the great one had a good unicorn friend. Papa would know 'cause he was there and Retlin became his first human. That was before I was born. It was before there were Emperors even!"

"That means you're from Tenri!"

"Oops."

Lystin wasn't sure what was going on but he knew Thane might have an idea. "Ayora I'm going home. I live in the palace and I know there are no bad unicorn-men inside just a lot of unicorn statues, so you can come with me. If you hide in the park, no one will see you. I'll come later to see you."

Ayora cocked her head, watching Lystin with one golden eye before chirping her agreement and getting the thief to launch her into the air again. She circled overhead until Lystin remounted Black Light and started back towards the city.

The ride back was uneventful; though Lystin was pleased to note the watchers were gone for now. This put him in a better mood so he ignored the whispers and stares as he rode through the city. He even saluted the guards when they let him inside the palace walls. After making sure Black Light was taken care of, he went back into his and Thane's rooms.

One of the servants had been in lighting lamps against the gathering darkness. The warm glow reflected off the blue and gold walls. Once sprawled across his chair and for lack of anything else to do as he waited for his king to return, Lystin began softly playing his flute.

Lystin began thinking of Ayora. She was so strange. A talking bird with the apparent maturity of a six year-old. If his instincts hadn't told him he could trust her, he wouldn't have had anything to do with something that smacked so obviously of magic. He'd never been comfortable around those that claimed to be mages, though there were precious few in the capital. His inability to comfortable around mages was the reason he tried to avoid visiting the healers' whenever possible. Not that the healers made him feel uncomfortable it was just he associated magic with not feeling good.

The main door to the suite opened up and Lystin stopped his tune in mid-note. Thane walked in, looking unusually cheerful considering he's just come from a court dinner.

The thief couldn't help but grin back as he got up. "You look happy. Dinner go well today?"

Thane laughed. "You could say that. Lady Kranila, one of my most persistent, ignorant and unwanted would-be wives just got engaged to Earl Bolom's son, Twasin. It seems Kranila's father is a lot smarter then his daughter. He knows she hasn't got a snowball's chance in hell of me marrying her. Especially now that you're around."

Lystin's grin widened. It was pretty funny and had a certain ironic justice. Twasin was known for sleeping with anything that moved and Kranila for spending all the money she could get her hands on, on expensive gowns, jewelry and cosmetics.

"So how'd…whatever you went to go do, go?"

"Well…" The thief briefly outlined what's happened. Apart from being angry that Lystin had attempted to confront his watchers and been attacked, Thane seemed pretty interested in Ayora.

"The only possible place she could be is from Tenri. And to be a phoenix from there she'd have to be the daughter of the Emperor's phoenix. That's the only phoenix I've ever heard of and it's a well known fact that the Emperor's phoenix had a mate and three little ones."

"That would explain a fair bit thought not why the guards and her are here in the first place."

Thane shrugged. "Can't help you there. Shall we go meet her then?"

Lystin nodded and the two slipped out the back way, heading towards the slightly wooded area in the park, reasoning that that would be the easiest place for the bird to hide.

"Ayora?" The thief called softly. "Ayora will you come out? I want you to come meet somebody."

The soft flutter of wings was the only warning as the dark shape that was Ayora alighted onto his shoulder, apparently her favourite perch on him. "Ayora this is Thane. Thane this is Ayora."

The king bowed with a flourish. "It is not often I get to meet a lady of such unusual beauty."

Ayora bowed back, one wing swept back the other across her chest. She trilled her pleasure at the compliment before replying. "It isn't often I get to meet a nice-good man like you."

Thane laughed. Lystin smiled. He was glad they were both getting along so well. "Do you know if there is a bad-unicorn man here?" Ayora asked. "Lystin said he hadn't seen one but you look like you've lived here longer so you'd maybe know more."

The king raised an eyebrow. "Bad unicorn-man."

The phoenix nodded. "Yes. Of course he's not the real bad unicorn-man, humans don't live that long but he would be descended from him. The bad unicorn-man his the really bad mage-man from the great one for while but she found him and eventually killed him." At this point Ayora was now perched in the crook of Thane's arm, having shifted over to him while talking, and had her eyes half-closed with pleasure as he scratched her.

"So who was the original bad unicorn-man?"

"King Zuckian. He wasn't very nice. He wanted Tenri."

Thane choked and Lystin grew wide-eyed. It couldn't be that…

"King Zuckian was the ruler of this land over seven hundred years ago." Thane remarked.

"Seven hundred and sixty-seven years ago." Ayora put in.

The young king sighed. "If you're looking for Zuckian's descendant, then look no further. That would be me. I'm the current king."

Now it was Ayora's turn to go wide-eyed. "You? Buy you're so nice! Father said…You must be a nice-good unicorn-man! Papa said not all unicorn-men are bad and you scratch too good to be bad."

Lystin shook his head at the young bird's logic. "Well I'm glad you've decided Thane's aright because otherwise I was going to have to ask you to leave."

"Why?" Ayora asked sounding hurt.

The thief flushed so Thane answered. "Me and Lystin are…together."

A few moments passed as the phoenix studied them before exclaiming. "Oh! I get it now. You're mates. Papa and Mama are mates. That's good. It means I can protect both of you and not get into trouble. Papa always says if you protect a person you have to protect their mate too or they get upset. Thane is a good mate for you Lystin. I like him. He's good at scratching. I had better go now. The guards wanted me to come back and talk to them. They'll need to know you're mates and that Thane is a nice-good unicorn-man." Finished, Ayora jumped back over to Lystin's arm and had him give her a boost into the air. The two lovers watched her dark form flap up into the sky and fly away over the shadowy walls of the palace.

Hand in hand they returned to their rooms. "So who do you know in Tenri?" Thane asked, once they were both sitting comfortably.

"No one. I've never left this country."

"Odd then that Emperor Tarith would be interested in you. It must be really serious to send guards and a phoenix, however young she may be. The imperial bodyguards are among the best in the world not to mention the incident that would arise if they were discovered here. Not that I'd let it come to war but things could still get nasty."

"So what are we going to do?"

"For now let's just try and find out why they're here and why they're following you."

Lystin nodded. "I'll start checking my usual sources. I'll let you know if I find anything."

For once when they went to bed they actually went straight to sleep, both tired but neither could get to sleep without the other one beside them.