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Moonshadows

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Moonshadows

I

o0o

Prince Kuoji stared at the vista that spread out before him, the white towers of the Palace of the Sun jutting up into the sky like an ivory dagger. Bleached from several centuries' worth of sunlit days, the pale stone was visible from miles around. To the people of the kingdom of Corona, the Palace was a testament of beauty and strength, and a symbol of the gods' blessings upon the land.
A faint smirk appeared on his lips as he recalled his time spent within the Palace. Back then he'd been nothing more than a servant, the bastard son of a woman who'd been taken as a concubine by an Atyamai man before she'd managed to escape him while she was pregnant. He'd endured the scorn and prejudice of adults and children alike due to his obvious mixed heritage.
It'd been nearly a decade since he'd last seen this place. However, he was no longer someone to be looked down at. When he set foot into the Palace, it would not be as a lowly half-breed servant. It would be as Prince of the Atyamai, son of the Emperor Imonje. He would relish the expression on King Helin's face when the old man saw who it was that had come to take his crown away from him.
He turned his head, his dark green eyes fixing upon the woman next to him. With hair as dark as his own, and skin like alabaster, the similarity between the two could not be missed despite the fact that he was only half Atyamainese. It'd been remarked upon more than once in the Imperial Court how the two could have such similar facial expressions. She had a slight smile on her lips that mirrored his own.
“How does it feel? Experiencing any nostalgia?” the woman asked, her eyes as dark as her hair as she regarded him. Like him, she was clad in armor of exquisite quality, lightweight compared to the traditional armor generally worn in Corona, yet no less efficient in its design, especially considering its wearer.
“Perhaps a bit, Aunt. However, I can assure you, that is no impediment to our goal.”
“I did not think it would be. However, I know there is a prize you seek. I will not impede you from it, but I must remind you that a long time has passed.” Her voice was gentle, yet carried an undertone of steel.
He took a deep breath. Azami was right, and he was already aware of the possibilities. Things could, and usually did, change with the passing of years, and people certainly were no exception to the rule. He'd been aware of this truth for years, especially as his own person was evidence of just how much weight this maxim held. In his case, the changes had been positive. He could only hope that for the person he longed to see, the years had not eroded away the positive things he remembered.
“We will see what happens. My commitment to our goal will remain the same regardless of what happens.”
Azami's smile became warmer. “I only want to see you happy.”
His response to that was a brief nod before he turned around to face the army that was massed before him and his aunt. Banners of white fluttered in the breeze, the black shape on them easily discernible as a hand with its palm facing the viewer, its fingers and thumb straight as if to signal 'stop'. The sigil was recognized across the empire of Atyamai, and even in Corona, where this dark hand stood for their greatest enemy. In reality, it was the crest of the rulers of Atyamai, the dark hand a literal and figurative symbol of their power.
One of the generals approached the pair, bowing his head before looking up at them.
“The men are in readiness, and those in the Palace are prepared for their part.”
“Excellent,” Azami replied. “Let us tarry no longer, then.” She lightly dug her heels into the side of her russet-colored horse, and Kuoji did the same, setting his own ebony steed in a brisk trot.
Seemingly as one, the army moved, the blacks and grays of the massed soldiers making it seem as if a shadow was moving across the verdant land.

o0o

Princess Sialen was silent as she stood in the shadows of the chapel as her mother and younger sister prayed to the Heavenly Father. Her gaze moved along the statue that stared down imperiously at the pair before it, the white marble sculpted into the figure of a bearded man seated upon a throne. The carved features were set in a slight frown, the stained glass window behind the statue strategically designed to illuminate him from behind so as to further the majestic aura the larger-than-life sculpture was meant to convey.
The news of the Atyamai invasion had reached the Court nearly a month ago. It'd started with a breach of the border between the two kingdoms, with the army of the Dark Hand making inexorable progress inwards. Naturally, her father, King Helin, had ordered his army to stop the Dark Hand in its tracks. Reinforcements were quickly pulled in from the various provinces of Corona, marching to battle the invading army. To Helin's shock and rage, the Dark Hand prevailed every time, making progress towards the Capitol, capturing towns and cities along the way.
The King had also sent for his allies, but only half of them responded to his aid, and even several powerful Houses had neglected to respond to the call of arms, at least right away. Nearly a week ago, the prosperous city of Helport, one of Corona's biggest and most well-defended strongholds, fell to the Dark Hand, and it was at this news that Sialen had the certainty that the Sol dynasty would come to an end.
It wasn't as if she hadn't seen portents of this, however. She was an avid student of history, and read whatever she could get her hands on, regarding Corona or other kingdoms. Over the last few generations, the Sol kings had become increasingly arrogant and complacent, believing that the Heavenly Father gave them the right to rule over Corona and do as they pleased. She'd certainly heard enough times from her own father how their bloodline was blessed and that their centuries of rule would become millennia. Though often excluded from Courtly affairs due to her sex, she was intelligent enough to figure things out on her own from what she was able to see and hear. The few times she'd voiced her concerns to her father, she was joked at or dismissed outright.
Only if I had been the ruler of this country, Sialen mused as the words of her mother and sister made their way to her ears. Then she would have sought an alliance with Atyamai, instead of antagonizing them like her father enjoyed doing.
Her gaze moved down to the light pink fabric that covered her body, with blue and yellow flowers embroidered along the bodice and hem. She loathed wearing the color, and preferred dark, somber colors, but her mother had insisted that she wear this as it was viewed pleasing for a woman to wear colors seen as feminine. There were times when she would fight with Queen Selestia over clothing, but this time, she'd decided to not expend her energy over a matter that at this time, was trivial.
Her mother's voice became louder as she beseeched the Heavenly Father for safety and prosperity, reminding the deity of the obeisance of the family, and their faithful observation to the sacred rites.
There were several acerbic things that Sialen had to say to that, but she kept her lips pressed together. Her relationship with her mother was often fraught with conflict, but in such a dire time, she respected her mother's need for solace, even if she felt that this solace was better sought from a different source.
“Your Majesties!” she heard the breathless voice of a servant call out, and her head snapped up to see the intruder to the royal chapel. The middle-aged woman, one of Selestia's handmaidens, was flustered, her considerable bosom heaving with the exertion of her harried journey up the stairs to the chamber. “The Dark Hand has breached the gates!”
Queen Selestia was a pale woman, but Sialen could wear that her skin became at least a shade lighter. Her younger daughter, Stella, gave out a sudden cry as she grabbed her mother's sleeve.
“Heavenly Father preserve us!”
So far, Sialen had made no attempt to argue with her mother and sister, or intrude upon their prayers. However, at this, she was unable to rein in her frustration, and the words came tumbling out of her mouth almost before she realized she had said them.
“If he cared at all, would he permit the Dark Hand to make its way to our very doorstep?” she demanded.
“This is no time for blasphemy!” Selestia snapped at her older daughter.
“It was a simple question, and one that I feel is very justified in this case,” Sialen replied coolly. Despite her icy demeanor, she felt her heart pounding. Since she was little, she, like any other resident of Corona, had been told often enough about how depraved the people of Atyamai were.
Some of the things she'd heard were so lurid that she was sure they must be exaggerated, yet the people repeating such stories insisted that they must be true. After all, the Atyamai were ruled by the Dark Hand, and took pride in practicing black magic. Such a people could only have darkness in their depraved hearts. It was said that they ate babies, cats, dogs, that old men would take young boys to bed so that they could use their dark magic to drink the youth from the child to extend their own lifespan, that the vaginae of the women were sideways instead of front to back, and even that the penises of the men were so small that they had to find other ways to gain sexual satisfaction which included mutilating their lovers. And on the stories went. To become a prisoner of the Atyamai would be a fate worse than death.
Sialen didn't doubt that she and her sister, and even their mother, who was still an attractive woman, would be valuable trophies for their conquerors.
I will die before I allow myself to be dishonored, she promised herself. For most women, this meant that they would not have to live with the shame of living through degradation and the knowledge that others would know of their shame. In Corona, a woman who was raped, even if she had been unable to fight the man off, was still seen as shamed, and might as well have been branded for life. For Sialen, it wasn't about what other people would think of her, but about whatever pain and suffering that the conquerors would wish to inflict upon her.
“Perhaps the Heavenly Father has lured the Atyamai to our doorstep so that he might strike them down in their greatest moment of pride!” Stella pointed out before Selestia could issue another rebuke.
The older woman smiled at her youngest child with open approval, lightly touching Stella's cheek. The two looked almost identical but for age, both of them bearing the same golden-blond hair, bright blue eyes, and creamy skin. Next to them, Sialen looked washed out, her hair closer to silver than gold, and her eyes as pale as ice, lacking the warmth of a summer sky.
“Of course, Stella! What else could it be but these depraved infidels being lured to their greatest downfall?”
“You had better hope you are right, Stella,” Sialen said. It was the closest thing she would give to a concession to her sister's statement. Selestia looked at her and gave a rare nod of approval.
Suddenly, the window behind the statue, as well as the smaller windows at either side of the room, went dark. Stella gave out a frightened shriek, and Sialen blinked in shock as she looked up at the window. There were several lamps in the chamber, so there was just enough illumination for its occupants to be able to see one another and navigate the considerable space. She rushed over to the door and looked down the hallway, seeing that the windows there were dark as well.
She turned to see the other three women staring at her, and she slowly shook her head.
“Oh!” Stella gave out a quiet sob.
“Come, let us pray,” said the maidservant. “Surely the Heavenly Father seeks to test our faith before delivering us our salvation.”

o0o

Kuoji stood in the throne room, his arms crossed as he stared up at King Helin. The older man, his reddish-blond hair liberally streaked with gray, sat imperiously upon his throne, his knuckles white as they gripped the arms of the seat. His son, Prince Solan, stood at his side. Even now, in the face of overwhelming odds, Helin stubbornly remained where he was, fully believing that his god would save him.
The nobles who had taken refuge in here with their King and Prince now cowered before the dark-clad men that surrounded them, lining up along the walls of the room and guarding the entrances, their swords at the ready. As one gifted in black magic, Kuoji's eyes were well-adjusted to the limited light that the lamps along the walls offered.
There was movement, and the men parted from the main entrance to the throne room to admit Helin's wife and two daughters, flanked by more Atyamai soldiers. His heart skipped a beat as he glanced at the pink-clad figure, immediately recognizing the pale blonde hair and paler eyes of the Princess Sialen. As their eyes met, he registered confusion in her features as the men ushered the women past him, up to the dais where the throne sat.
He raised his hand in a quick, subtle gesture, making a quick signal. Within a couple of moments, the shadows receded from the windows, casting the room in sunlight again. Many people blinked at the sudden intrusion of light, and he allowed several moments of silence.
Helin was quick to take advantage of this silence.
“See, the Heavenly Father has banished the darkness!” he stated triumphantly, rising from his throne, resplendent in his robes of gold and purple. He raised his arms, fingers spread out as if in a gesture of benediction.
Kuoji remained standing with his arms crossed, staring at Helin with a deadpan expression, lifting his chin in a not-so-subtle expression of challenge. His gaze slid over to Sialen, their eyes meeting again. She raised her eyebrow, and he gave her a brief nod, seeing her eyes widen slightly in response.
“Well?” Kuoji asked after several more moments, raising his hand in a gesture of impatience. “If you're up there, go ahead and strike me down for my insolence.”
“Your moment will come!” Helin responded firmly, his arms still upraised.
“I believe it already has.” With a wave of his hand, several tigers materialized out of the shadows in the corner of the room, prowling along the length of the chamber, causing the nobles to flinch back as they passed. The beasts seemed to toy with their captive audience, darting a few feet forward only to leap back, or opening their maws as if to bite. Their creator took several slow steps forward, pausing in the light cast from one of the tall windows, illuminating his dark hair and garb, and making his skin look almost white.
The big cats approached the throne, causing the women to flinch back when one of the shadow-creatures took a step onto the dais. Suddenly, all four of the tigers disappeared, and the Queen slumped slightly against her younger daughter.
Sialen looked at her father and shook her head. “Father, it is over. Please end this with dignity, if not for us, then at least for yourself,” she pleaded. The king regarded her with a disapproving glare before he turned his attention back to the conquering prince.
“Any one of you who were secure in your faith, would rush forward and try to cut me down. Surely your god would protect you. Surely your… heavenly father would reward you for such courage.”
Nobody said anything for a moment, before Prince Solan charged forward, unsheathing his sword and swinging it. The rubies on the hilt sparkled in the sunlight, and Kuoji saw a wince pass through Sialen's features as her hand fluttered up to her chest..
“The gods act through your brother, Sialen. How little faith you have,” Helin remarked. Kuoji barely registered these words as he parried Solan's sword with his own, the lighter, thinner steel blade successfully deflecting Solan's blow. Four of his men came to his side at his signal, engaging Solan and quickly disarming the young man.
Kuoji silently sheathed his sword as his men restrained Solan and dragged him off to one side. “Your god couldn't strike me down, did you really think your son stood a chance?” he asked Helin. “Now, even with that.. recent unpleasantness, I still offer you the chance to make a peaceful surrender. Let it not be said that I am not a fair person.”
“… No.” Helin muttered, sitting back in his chair, like an obstinate child that refused to give up his favorite toy.
“Have you gone deaf in your old age? Or lost the use of your legs? You're certainly taking your time getting out of our chair.”
“Go to hell, you Atyamai filth. Darkness always perishes before light,” Helin countered stubbornly. “This throne has belonged to my family for centuries, and I'm not about to give it up to some shadow-filth.” Emboldened by their King, a few of the nobles whispered and jeered, their prejudice against the Atyamai superseding their good sense.
“Lucas?” Selestia shrieked, finally recognizing him. “Is this how you repay my family's generosity, by coming here and trying to take our kingdom? Does Darkness know no end to perversion!” the woman huffed with indignation. Helin blinked and squinted his eyes, peering down at Kuoji before his lips set in a tight line. Still, Kuoji could see the struggle to comprehend, much less accept the reality before him. Finally, after several moments, the King leaned forward, jabbing a finger in Kuoji's direction.
“You filthy half-breed! I should have put you and your mother to the sword when I had the chance!” he snarled. “That's what she deserves for lying with a slanty-eyes!”
At this. Kuoji could hear angry hisses from several of his soldiers at the slur. Normally, Atyamai men were more reserved in showing their emotions, but in this case, very few could blame them for being so agitated at having their heritage and appearance so derided.
“Perversion lies in zealotry and persecution. You've made your kingdom a realm of shrieking extremists, and fools too frightened to leave their homes once the sun has set. Don't project your people's failings onto me.” Kuoji spoke the words blandly. Helin's words were akin to being slapped in the face, but he would not give the old fool the satisfaction of rousing a reaction from him. He continued his lecture, taking several steps closer to the throne.
“Your throne, like anything else, casts a shadow, old man. I could have used these shadows to form a noose around your neck, and strangled you right here and now. I am giving you the chance to move by your own power. My aunt will be here soon and when that time comes and you're still there, she will order your bloody, beaten carcass pulled from the chair and fed to the dogs.”
Helin stared at Kuoji for several moments before looking around at his cowering nobles. Sialen raised her chin and moved closer to her father, the ice in her eyes visible to Kuoji. She spoke to her father in a low voice, though it was clear from its firmness that she meant for Kuoji to hear as well.
“Father, get off the throne if you value your life, and for fuck's sake, listen to me, for once. There are no gods to protect you. The only choice you have now is whether you want to live or die.”
Helin stared at his daughter, and Kuoji was certain that in any other instance, the young woman would have been rewarded with at least a slap for her insolence.
Grudgingly, at the slowest pace possible, the King of Corona slid from the throne, almost oozing out of it. “You will pay for this yet,” he promised as he looked down at his adversary. “The gods work in mysterious ways.”
At seeing her husband slide from the throne, Selestia started sobbing, making it clear that she understood the finality of the gesture.
“The argument employed when you realize gods hold no answer. Such petulance is unbecoming even in a former king.”
He turned to one of his men and spoke to him in their native tongue.
“Is my aunt still occupied?” he asked.
“I believe so, but she should be done with them soon.”
“Go see her. Tell her that her throne awaits.”
“As you wish.” The man bowed and took his leave. Azami had chosen to stay behind in the keep of the castle, where she could interrogate the captain of the palace guard, along with other people that were important to the castle, such as the majordomo. This was not without reason – Azami was known in the Imperial Court as a skilled interrogator. Any information she would glean from her captives would be beneficial for both herself and her nephew, as well as their men.
Several more men came to secure Helin, and he also signaled for them to take Selestia and Stella into custody. The former Queen glared at him as she was led off the dais, and he simply stared back at her impassively before turning his attention back to the Princess.
A hint of a smile appeared on his face as he approached the dais, taking one step onto it and resting his elbow on his knee as he studied her. Her hands were folded together at her stomach, and she stared back at him silently.
“You certainly seem to have maintained your practicality… I am grateful that growing up in this place did not rob you of your good sense. Gods and monsters...” He gave a rueful shake of his head. “In Atyamai, such things are found in kid's stories... and even those children know fiction when they hear it.”
At that, she gave him the barest of smiles. “So it really is you.” Her expression became somber, and he didn't doubt that she wondered what was to become of her. “Corona is now yours, what do you intend to do with it?”
The unspoken question was, what do you intend to do with me? She stared at him with eyes that reminded him of a winter sky. Before he could answer, he heard sharp footsteps, and turned to see his aunt, her chin raised as she strode down the red carpet that led to the dais. She paused in front of it, placing her hands on her hips as she studied the throne.
It was a heavy thing of gold, made with a solar and celestial motif, the back of it extending in long spikes that were mounted with diamond, amber, and topaz.
“Hmm, it's gaudy for my tastes, but for the moment, it will do.” She climbed the steps and sat down in it, her small, shapely behind sinking into the cushion. “A bit too soft, but then the Sol dynasty has gone soft.” she shrugged.
“A woman must never sit ion the throne!” Helin hissed, surrounded by guards. “It is an affront to the gods and the dynasty!" Unlike Atyamai, Corona treated its women like second-class citizens, something that Kuoji remembered very well from his tenure here.
“Our victory here should show you that a woman can lead as well as any man,” Kuoji offered, glaring over his shoulder at Helin. "If you raise your voice to my aunt again, your skull will adorn that throne by day's end.” For a moment, genuine anger entered his voice. However, when he turned back to his old friend, his smile returned.
“My aunt has taken her prize. And I have mine.” His eyes met hers again. Reaching out, he touched a hand to her cheek, brushing it softly with his thumb. He dropped his voice, intending his next words for her ears only. “Do not fear me. I would never hurt an old friend.”
She blinked once before regarding him with a brief nod. Though his words were inaudible to others, his gesture was visible, and at that, Helin hissed at his wife. “That half-breed bastard thinks he can touch a woman of Sol! May the gods make his manhood wither and fall off”
“A worthy prize you have claimed, nephew. Not only is she beautiful, but the magic in her is strong. I can sense it. She will be a valuable addition to the Dark Hand.” Azami's tone was casually deliberate, designed to infuriate Helin. But then, it was one of the things that made her such a skilled interrogator.
Kuoji slowly turned to the fallen king. “For a pauper in lordly robes, your arrogance is profound.” His gaze moved to the guards holding the royal family. “If he speaks out of turn again, beat him. He is in my aunt's palace. Here, one affords their hosts proper respect.”
Azami gave her nephew an approving nod before turning her attention to the captive nobles.
“You will be given the opportunity to pledge allegiance to the Atyamai, and the Tekuras, who are now your new rulers. We are firm, and will not hesitate to discipline anyone who steps out of line, but we are also fair, which is more than could ever be said for the former Kings of Sol. You have a choice; kneel before me and Kuoji, or kneel at the executioner's block.”
Some of the nobles stared. Azami was the kind of woman that a typical Coronan man would fear – beautiful, strong, and intelligent. It was a terrifying thought – a woman who could rival, and exceed them, dispelling their long-held notions that women were of the weaker sex. “I would prefer the former, but I am not afraid to administer the latter, if need be.” Her voice was as hard as steel, and a man stepped forward, garbed in black.
His face showed an odd mixture of solemnity and dourness set in broad features which were emphasized by the fact that his hair was pulled back in a tight, thick topknot. His build was tall and strong, and strapped to his back was a sword nearly as tall as he. His thick build was deceptive, as he was one of the fastest swordsmen Kuoji had ever met, and in fact, this man had been one of his teachers.
“Me or him, choose,” Azami challenged with a wave of her hand.
With great reluctance, one of the nobles, a portly old man, approached the dais and with some effort, dropped to one knee before swearing fealty. Several others followed his lead, understanding that their defeat was complete and that there was not much other choice.
Any time a man made his way past Helin, he would hiss at them that they were traitors. Two of his guards started to beat his sides with their sheathed swords. Kuoji averted his eyes, ignoring the punishment as he would look away from a parent admonishing their misbehaved child in public.
One younger nobleman strode forward, his chin held high. However, he did not kneel and instead looked Azami right in the eye.
“You bitch whore. You are a piece of meat not even fit for the dogs to play with, and-” Before he could finish his sentence, his head was rolling along the ground as blood spurted from the space where it had once sat. Sialen flinched a bit, but she kept her chin raised and her hands folded, maintaining her pride and dignity. Kuoji gave her a brief, approving nod.
“Is there anyone here who is related to this man?” Azami demanded, pointing to the headless body that lay on the floor, twitching a couple of times before it fell still. Several pairs of eyes moved to a young woman who bore a strong resemblance to the recently deceased man.
“Who are you?” Azami asked in a voice that was several degrees kinder than before.
“I am… was… his sister.”
“Well, now you are the head of your family.”
The woman became flustered, blinking several times. “But, my father...”
“But nothing,” Azami replied, her voice still kind, but taking on a firm edge. “In Atyamai, women can be the head of their families, and since this land is now part of Atyamai, the laws of the Tekura apply here.”
The woman blinked again before stepping forward, delicately stepping over her brother to kneel before her new ruler.
There were not many women here, most of them wives or daughters of a nobleman. Some of them seemed utterly shocked at the idea of a woman taking leadership, but Kuoji could see the wheels turning in the minds of a few of them as they stared at Azami or the newly-appointed family leader.
After that, more of the nobles were quicker to fall in line, though some did so with obvious reluctance. Only a couple more lost their heads. Whenever an execution was called for, Azami chose to not have the bodies cleared away, choosing to leave them where they were as an example for the remaining nobles.
Only when all of the nobles had been given their choice did Azami decide that the proceedings were over for the time being.
“You are free to go. However, keep in mind that the army of the Dark Hand was able to easily conquer the soldiers of Corona, and for more reasons than one. Any attempts at rebellion will be met with swift reprisal, as you have just seen,” Azami stated.
Kuoji smirked to himself at that as he studied the room. Corona had not been conquered from just the outside – there had been people on the inside who wearied of the Sol dynasty and the arrogance and selfishness of its rulers. The invasion had been planned for several decades, and this patience and care came with ample reward.
“It has been a long day, and I think we are more than ready for a victory feast, hmm?” Azami asked her nephew, though she spoke loudly enough for others to be able to hear as well.
“I don't doubt that every one of our men feels the same way.” He glanced towards the soldiers, beckoning one forward. Turning back to the Princess, he looked down at her. “I want you at my side at the banquet. Please make the appropriate preparations...” He glanced at her dress, did she hate pink today as much as she did back then? “And dress in the colors that please you.” He gestured to the soldier that had just joined them. “This is Sana. She will be your companion for the time being. Her command of the language is good, but she has not quite mastered it, so we ask for your patience. She can also act as your translator, and teach you some Atyamai as well.”
He almost chuckled at Sialen's surprise when she realized that the soldier was in fact a woman. Sana was garbed as any other soldier, the armor de-emphasizing the womanly curves she had, and her hair was puled in the same topknot that her male peers had.
“Very well, then.” Sialen said, her eyes darting between the two of them. It was obvious that she was still processing the situation. There was much he wanted to say to the Princess, but it was not yet time. He regarded her with a polite bow. “I will see you in a few hours, then.”
“… Yes.” She bowed her head slightly. It was not done to quite the proper degree, but then she was unfamiliar with Atyamai customs. There would be time to teach her later. She walked off the dais, Sana trailing behind her. The men parted from a side entrance to allow her to leave.
“Well. That went better than I thought it might,” Azami commented.
“Of which do you speak about – the invasion or the princess?”
“How about both?” she asked with a small smile.
He replied with a small snort. “I have no complaints.”
“Neither do I. Well, besides that the cushion here is too soft,” Azami said, wiggling around on the seat.

o0o

I hope you enjoyed this introduction to my new story. I wanted to put a new twist on the old trope of the 'captured princess/maiden'. It's a popular one, and one I've read several times, but there's always been something about how it's usually presented that came across to me as repetitive. So I am working hard to make this story unique and enjoyable, and with a main male and female lead that come across as likeable, either by themselves or together despite the fact that they come from opposing sides and so on.
Reviews and feedback are always welcome and appreciated!