With feminine grace, Lynne descended the stairs that led to the inn’s main room. Adan was following a few steps behind, and as soon as the pair came into view, the soldiers waiting on the first floor practically jumped to their feet.
“Princess!” they greeted in unison, bowing respectfully.
Lynne barely glanced at the gathered soldiers in the room. Instead, he practically floated up to Colonel Dallas and gave the woman a frosty look.
“Well?” he asked, skipping all forms of greetings. “Will I be disappointed?”
“I . . . I believe not,” Dallas replied steadily after a shaken start. “The girl has agreed to speak up, but . . .”
“But?” Lynne interrupted. “I am not liking the sound of this, Colonel.”
Dallas didn’t let herself get too fazed by Lynne’s comment. “She has agreed to speak, but will only do so to the King’s fiancée – to you, Princess Hayden.”
“Oh? And you couldn’t convince her otherwise?” One of Lynne’s powdered and perfectly reshaped eyebrows lifted slightly. “Impressive girl.”
“This soldier has let Your Highness down.”
“Yes,” Lynne agreed, hearing a muffled chuckle from behind him. He ignored Adan’s little outburst, though; “but I suppose it doesn’t matter as long as we get our answers.”
Lynne turned towards Adan, only to find his makeshift bodyguard surveying the other men in the inn.
“Is something the matter?”
“Hmm? Oh, not really, no.” Adan had seemed distracted at first, and Lynne was about to ask about it further when Adan countered by simply flashing him a crooked smile. It was perhaps more of a snicker than a smile, but the deep warmth in Adan’s eyes caused Lynne’s mouth to twitch and he quickly turned away.
He decided to drop the matter.
“Then let’s go; lead the way, Colonel.”
“You are refraining from mentioning this morning’s attack,” Adan’s A.I. stated as the former walked through the streets a few steps behind Lynne. The group was moving rather fast but for Adan it was a leisurely pace.
“What attack? Sai, I just went to the roof to practice; anything else would be against protocol.”
“. . . It is requested of Sai to point out that you are lying. Sai is well aware that following protocol means nothing to you.”
“Not when they lead to more interesting situations, I don’t – remember the Listless Planet?”
Adan gave her A.I. a mental wink and could almost feel the latter shudder in response.
“That situation should serve as a learning experience.”
Adam shrugged, mischievous mirth in her eyes. “I followed protocol.”
The A.I. actually sighed at this point, causing Adan’s smile to spread to her lips; making her artificial companion feel and show emotions was always a victory.
“As for the people who played a part in my target practice . . .” Adan glanced over her shoulder, smiling wistfully at the soldiers behind her. “Time will tell.”
The walk back to the convent didn’t take long, and once they arrived, a horde of blonde, petite girls greeted them outside the massive doors. As soon as they saw Lynne’s party, half of the ladies squealed and started whispering amongst themselves. Adan snickered; their voices might be soft, but she had no problem hearing what they said as they giggled and commented on Adan’s appearance. The day before, Adan had been too exotic, too foreign. Now, with the initial surprise out of the way and her assistance yesterday, Adan’s “male” charms could no longer be ignored.
“Aren’t you popular. . . .” Lynne muttered to Adan, causing the latter’s smirk to widen further.
“You are quite popular yourself,” she teased back, gesturing to the other half of the girls, who were all staring at Lynne with starstruck eyes.
“That’s not the type of attention I want. . . .”
Lynne rolled his eyes and clicked his tongue disapprovingly. However, inspiration suddenly seemed to hit him because in the next moment, Lynne deliberately stepped on the hem of his own dress, causing him to stumble forward. Adan acted on reflex more than anything and stretched out her arm, effortlessly catching the falling beauty.
With Adan’s arm around his waist, Lynne looked up at her with tender eyes. “Thank you, Adan,” he breathed, his voice soft like summer rain. He leaned in closer and whispered in her ear: “At least now, you also have some unwanted attention.”
Satisfied, Lynne slipped out of Adan’s embrace and stepped towards the convent doors, completely indifferent to the gathered crowd, which swiftly made way for him as he walked. Adan stared blankly at Lynne’s departing back for a moment before bursting out laughing.
“Well played!” she chuckled.
Adan, too, headed for the convent, ignoring the mixed glares she was getting, ranging from disappointment from the swooning girls to outright hatred from the male guards. Not surprisingly, only the few female guards followed to enter the convent; at least their gazes had yet to turn hateful.
Inside, the elaborate water fountain was active again. Standing in front of it was a middle-aged woman with light brown hair. Adan recognized her from the day before; she was one of the senior priestesses of the convent and Adan assumed that she was the one who was normally in charge around here – when the king’s own representative didn’t commandeer the ship, so to speak.
“The moons have blessed your journey, Lady Hayden,” the woman said, her arms forming a circle as she curtsied politely to Lynne.
“And our meeting,” Lynne replied, mimicking the gesture.
“This way, Honorable Lady. The Reverend Mother and the . . . Sun Tribe Duke are keeping vigil over the prisoner.”
As the woman moved away, Lynne leaned in to whisper in Adan’s ear. “She is a traditionalist, this one; very few priestesses still use the blessing of the moons as a greeting anymore.”
“Is that so.”
Lynne rolled his eyes and stopped trying to explain. The pair, closely followed by Dallas and a handful of female guards, were led deep into the convent and down a firelit staircase. At the bottom of the stairs was a damp room that had a very dungeon-like feeling, or at least it would have, if not for the cyclone of flames that slowly swirled around a kneeling figure in the middle of the room.
Adan raised an eyebrow in surprise. These flames radiated very little heat, but, from the movement in the air, Adan could still sense the strength behind them.
“Impressive fire bending as always,” Lynne commented, giving a nod to the man standing next to the flames, Duke Kimba.
“Not at all,” he replied, shooting Adan a meaningful glance. His eyes seemed to be telling her that this was only a fraction of what she would be able to do.
“Quite a fascinating notion,” Adan mused to her A.I., while Lynne gave a brief greeting to the Reverend Mother Amaris, who was also present in the room.
“Take down the barrier,” he then instructed and the Duke quickly complied. With the flames gone, the girl’s figure became clearer; her clothes were in tatters, with dark patches of purple and red visible under the scraps of fabric. Three-arms-thick streams of water were coiled around her body, restricting her movements.
It was Lynne’s turn to look surprised.
“Isn’t this a bit . . . over the top? A prison of flames and shackles of water – either of these should be sufficient to deal with someone twice her strength.”
“The prison wasn’t to keep her in but to stop others from trying to kill her,” Kimba explained, but before he could continue, Mother Amaris cut him off: “The shackles are to keep her from killing herself,” she said, looking smug.
“And the bruises?” Adan asked, earning herself a glare from the pale-haired priestess.
“A necessity,” the woman snapped; “or are you sympathizing with this filthy little ha-. . .”
“Human?” Lynne interrupted, his glare cold and condemning. “I will not repeat this again; your ignorance vexes me, Reverend Mother.”
Amaris’s lip twitched into a minute, disgusted snarl, but she quickly lowered her head in submission. “Princess Hayden’s grace knows no bounds.”
“Thank you,” Lynne replied, as if that was the most natural thing in the world. Behind him, Adan smiled, unsure if she should point out that the reverend mother’s comment wasn’t only a compliment. She decided against it in the end, and instead moved over to stand next to Kimba, giving her a clear view of the ensnared girl on the ground.
“Anything useful?” Adan asked her A.I. while she scrolled the data being provided from every hyper-sense she had.
“It is still too premature to say.”
The response came just as Lynne stepped forward, his cold and aloof presence pushing down on the girl.
“Well then, prisoner, your future queen is here; what do you have to say in your defense?”
Instantly stirring from her previously motionless position, the girl’s head snapped up, glaring hatefully at Lynne. “You are no queen of mine, wench!” she spat.
“Mind your tongue!” Colonel Dallas snapped back. She was the first to react as she swiftly stepped forward, straight up punching the young girl’s jaw; it was weak, but Adan could even hear the faint cracking sound of the jaw bone fracturing slightly.
“Colonel!” Lynne protested with ill-feigned anger. “No need to get violent; every woman is entitled to her own opinion. However misguided it may be.”
“Shut up!” the girl snapped as she struggled against her restraints. “I don’t want your sympathy!”
“Oh? Then what do you want from this princess?” Lynne asked, his amicable tone only adding to the sense of impending doom. “I am here, so tell me: who sent you?”
The girl gulped, but anger and haste quickly replaced the fear she was feeling. “Ha! You are just like the rest: pompous, arrogant and unable to see the truth! You cannot even begin to see the truth, for I have been sent by the world itself!”
Lynne raised an unconvinced eyebrow, earning himself another contemptuous glare. “You ignorant fool; you know nothing of the world nor the Spirit of the Sun!”
“Spirit of the sun?”
“Yes, the Spirit of the Sun!” The girl’s eyes glowed with a nearly religious fervor. “I must pave the way, for she shall descend on this land and purge those who do her children harm; the Sun Tribes shall rule this land once more!”
“Ha!” The Reverend Mother was gloating as she glared at Adan. “It is as I thought; your kind cannot be trusted!”
Before Adan cared to respond, Kimba stepped forward, standing between the former and the priestess. “Don’t be ridiculous, Amaris. This child clearly doesn’t know what she is talking about!”
The bound girl snorted. “It is you who doesn’t know what you are talking about, Duke Kimba; you have abandoned your heritage and the Sun’s Tribes. You are nothing more than the oppressors’ lap dog!” A manic laugh bubbled out of the girl. “You shall see, Duke Kimba – you shall all see; the Spirit of the Sun shall come and she shall burn away all false believers. When she is done, there will once more only be fire benders among us!”
“You are a water bender yourself, you know . . .” Lynne pointed out.
“I-. . . I’m still a descendant of the Sun Tribes! My faith will safeguard me!”
Adan and Lynne glanced at each other, both seemingly coming to the same conclusion. Lynne sighed.
“So you are only a religious zealot acting on your own? I don’t believe it. How did you know about the danger of fire during my blessings?”
The reverent glow in the girl’s eyes intensified. “The spirit of the Sun came to me in a dream and told me. She is more than you can ever understand…”
“Hah . . .” Lynne let out a heavy breath, before turning towards Colonel Dallas. “I thought you said I wouldn’t be disappointed – clearly, this girl is still lying.”
“My apologies, Princess Hayden, but even during our . . . talks yesterday, she insisted she’d been sent by this Spirit of the Sun. When she agreed to speak to you, I had assumed that she was ready to speak the truth.”
Lynne sighed again. “Do you even know her name?”
While Lynne and the Colonel were discussing the captured girl – and the other two started arguing about religion – Adan glanced at the information hovering around young girl’s face. There was not a lot to go by, but one thing was certain, and that was that she gave no indications of deception whatsoever.
“Sai believes extensive neural manipulation has been performed on the captive.”
“Hmm, that does seem to be the case,” Adan agreed; “at least, she believes her own nonsense.”
“One could argue that there is some merit to her words though. You are a female fire bender who has descended to this place.”
Adan suppressed a chuckle. “Are you saying that I have visited her dreams too?”
“. . . Sai notes that there are several missing log-entries for the time period between the explosion that brought you here and Sai’s reboot; who knows what you were up to while you were alone?”
Adan blinked. “Sai. . . . Did, did you just tell a joke?”
“Sai will neither confirm nor refute such claims.”
This time, Adan didn’t manage to refrain from speaking out loud, causing the others present to stop their more or less constructive discussions and turn their attention to her.
“Wonderful? What is so wonderful about the Sun Tribes wanting to eradicate all Solmani!?” Amaris snapped, causing Kimba to fervently refute her claim.
The pair was about to start bickering again when Lynne clapped his hands together loudly. “Enough,” he demanded with undeniable authority, his feminine persona slipping slightly. Kimba and Amaris quieted down at once, bowing apologetically – although the duke did so a bit more naturally. If Lynne noticed the difference, he made no show of it.
His presence calmer, Lynne turned to Adan.
“Adan, would you explain yourself?”
His words might have been phrased like a question, but his tone indicated otherwise.
“Ah. Well, I laughed because I noticed that the girl keeps giving me . . . amorous looks,” Adan replied without hesitation.
“I did not!” the girl protested, her voice shrill, but the earlier punch had caused her face to swell too much, so it was impossible to say if it was out of anger or embarrassment.
“Now, now,” Adan cooed, “I think the lady protests too much.” She winked bashfully at the ensnared girl, not missing the slight shudder it caused in the nearby Lynne.
“. . . Sai is amazed by your ability to lie with a straight face.”
Adan ignored her A.I.’s sarcastic remark. With a mischievous smile on her lips, she spoke to Lynne instead: “As for what’s wonderful, I just figured that I might have a way to make her give us some more information.”
“Really, now?” Reverend Mother Amaris snorted before Lynne could reply. “What are you gonna do, charm the truth out of her?”
When Adan met the reverend mother’s glare, her mischievous smile widened into a wolfish grin.
“You-. . .”
Relishing in the woman’s shock, Adan traced her sharp teeth with her tongue. Suddenly, she started moving forward, kneeling in front of the captive girl. She raised her hand to gently caress the girl’s chin, slowly tilting the latter’s head backwards. Adan leaned in.
“Sorry darling, this might hurt a bit with that bruise of yours,” she whispered in a sensual voice meant only for a lover.
“Don’t -. . .” Lynne started, but it was too late; Adan’s lips were already pressed against the girl’s, the pair locked in a gentle kiss.
The room became deadly silent. At first the girl resisted Adan’s advances, but it didn’t take long before her lips parted, welcoming the kiss completely. A slight sneer flashed by in Adan’s eyes, but she didn’t hesitate to deepen the kiss. It wasn’t until the girl let out a pleasure moan that Adan finally pulled back a bit, their faces lingering just centimeters from each other.
“Feel better now?” Adan asked, but the girl was too dazed to answer. “You will be a good girl and answer all our questions, right?”
She only got a nod in reply.
“No lies. Promise?”
Another docile nod.
Pleased, Adan stood up and backed away a few steps.
“She’s all yours.”
It wasn’t until she turned around that Adan saw the four pairs of wide eyes that were staring at her in shock. She took half a step back, feigning innocence; “What?”