“I’m sorry, what?”
Lynne found himself staring at his supposed bodyguard in disbelief.
“Traitors,” Adan repeated as if he didn’t understand the source of Lynne’s confusion. “Among the guards.”
Hearing this, Lynne’s eyes hardened. “Your reasoning?” he asked solemnly.
Lynne was not naive enough to believe that everyone in the capital wanted him there, despite the strength that an ice bender would bring to the nation, and while he had only known Adan for a short while, Lynne had realized that the youth seldom spoke without reason – there was a lot of playful banter, but it was still somehow profound.
A faint glimmer surfaced in Adan’s gold-rimmed eyes as a smile tugged at the corner of his lips. Lynne blinked, briefly distracted by how oddly attractive Adan became in that moment, but his daze only lasted until the former opened his mouth.
“Did I forget to mention that there was another attempt on your life before we left Prayer Village? My bad.” Adan said with a shrug, sounding anything but guilty.
Lynne’s jaw almost dropped in shock, but before he had the chance to react, Adan spoke again; “Three assassins came to the inn, and considering how close they came without being detected by the Colonel’s people, I can only assume that at least a number of them were in on it.”
That one sentence was like a bucket of cold water over Lynne’s head; surprisingly, he did not doubt Adan’s words, but while he had not assumed that a queen’s life would be easy, wasn’t this a bit much? He hadn’t even made it to the court yet! Briefly, Lynne could feel fear growing within him, but he quickly reined it in, channeling the emotion to something more useful: determination.
“What happened?” he asked, not missing the slight surprise in Adan’s eyes at his calm reaction.
The surprise was, however, short-lived and, with an annoyingly bright smile, Adan gave an equally annoying answer to Lynne’s question: “Assassins came, I forced them to leave.”
“Leave?” Lynne frowned and slightly parted the curtain in front of the window to glance outside. “You didn’t catch or kill them?”
At this point, a shudder ran down Lynne’s back, but by the time he turned his attention back to Adan, he could see no traces of hostility in the youth’s eyes.
‘Did I imagine it?’
“I’m neither your assassin nor your bounty hunter – I’m your bodyguard.”
The words coming out of Adan’s mouth were spoken as a matter of fact and without malice, but Lynne couldn’t help but feel like there was a deeper meaning behind them. For a moment, the two of them sat in silence – staring at each other – with only the thundering sound of horses’ hooves pounding forward in their ears.
A large bump in the road suddenly caused the whole carriage to sway strongly, nearly flinging Lynne from his seat. Adan, on the other hand, was as steady as a rock, and he even reached out a hand across the cramped cabin to hold Lynne’s shoulder firmly, easily keeping him upright despite the violent rocking.
“My apologies, Princess Hayden!” the elderly coachman called from outside. “Everything alright?”
“Her Highness is fine,” Adan replied calmly before Lynne had the chance.
“Great!” The coachman sounded genuinely relieved. “Make sure to hold on to something, though; this will only get worse.”
Finished speaking to the coachman, Adan returned her attention to Lynne. “Do you?” he asked, clearly referring to his earlier statement.
“Y-yeah,” Lynne stuttered slightly before he regained his composure. Inwardly, he couldn’t help but feel a bit annoyed; ‘How could this country bumpkin make me feel threatened? I’ve followed my father into war for crying out loud!’
Frustrated, Lynne straightened his back and adopted the attitude of a commanding officer – something his father had drilled into both of his children since birth.
“So, as my bodyguard, would you please inform me who the traitors are.”
Despite the ‘please’, Lynne’s words weren’t a request so much as an order, but Adan didn’t seem fazed by his commanding tone.
“How should I know? I was busy fighting off the assassins that morning, and it’s not like Colonel Dallas has been willing to share the guard roster with me.”
Lynn’s eyes narrowed; what Adan said was plausible enough, and he could see no signs of deception from his young bodyguard, but somehow it still felt like a lie. He wanted to retort, but Adan didn’t let him.
“Either way, I’m guessing that we have at least 40 minutes left before we come close enough to the capital for the city guards to be able to spot us and come to our aid. Our pursuers, however, should only need 20 minutes to catch up – less if they don’t mind overworking their horses. Since they dare to act this close to our destination, I’m assuming that they are confident in their plan; getting caught is not a good idea. . . .”
Adan became quiet. The look Lynne received from her seemed to say “so what do you want to do about it?” as he patiently waited for instructions. For a moment, an image of his father flashed by in Lynne’s mind; a memory from all those times his father had wanted to test his abilities. Was Adan doing the same thing?
The notion felt absurd and only caused Lynne to pause for a heartbeat before he pushed it aside; test or not, what mattered now was reaching the city alive, preferably with his captive also still breathing.
‘We must slow them down!’
Having made up his mind, Lynne pushed off from his seat, aiming for the small hatch opposite to him. Opening it would allow him to speak more easily to the driver, but yet another ill-timed bump in the road caused Lynne’s balance to falter slightly. In such a cramped space, this was enough to alter his course from right next to Adan to straight at the man. Before he could alter his mistake, Lynne found himself wrapped in Adan’s arms.
“Seeking comfort in your hour of need? I’m honored.”
Lynne felt his face warming against his will. Instantly he clenched his fist, intending to give his insolent bodyguard a well-deserved punch, but Adan quickly raised his hands in surrender.
“Easy, princess,” he chuckled. “This was your destination, right?” Adan used one of her raised hands to pop open the hatch next to her head.
Forcing down the irritation he felt, Lynne leaned in closer to the hatch, unintentionally decreasing the distance between himself and Adan further.
“Coachman!” Lynne called outside. “Move my carriage next to the Priestess’ and call for the colonel.”
“Right away, your Highness!” The response was quick and the carriage instantly altered its speed.
With some difficulty, Lynne got back to his original seat, doing his best to ignore the pleasant scent that lingered in his nose.
‘How can a man smell so good?’ he muttered to himself, glancing at Adan with annoyance.
“Your Highness!” Colonel Dallas’ voice interrupted Lynne’s train of thoughts. “We must make haste for the capital!”
The Colonel didn’t say it, but Lynne didn’t miss her underlying unwillingness to waste time speaking to him. Lynne didn’t get upset though. He could understand her reasoning, especially considering how ‘Princess Hayden’ had spent a considerable amount of time complaining about the bumpy roads these past few days. He had almost managed to ruin the colonel’s opinion of her supposed queen-to-be yet again, although that wouldn’t last for very much longer.
“Colonel Dallas, I fear our pursuers will catch up before we get there; we need more time. Move your female guards to the back of the formation and have them drench the road behind us. Don’t make it too obvious though, or the road might be abandoned all together.”
There was a short pause after Lynne had spoken, but just a heartbeat later, Dallas gave a resounding “Affirmative!” before the hooves of her horse indicated that she had left to take care of his commands. Lynne gave a few more instructions both to the coachman and to Duke Kimba, who had paced his horse to remain just outside the carriage, before he took a deep breath and closed his eyes; he had done what he could.
“You hope to slow the pursuers’ horses by softening the mud of the road?”
Adan’s question caused Lynne to narrowly open one eye, glancing at the youth across from him. Nodding, he closed it again.
“And if they catch up anyway? With a quarter of your guards already drained from watering the road, won’t you be at too great a disadvantage?”
“It mustn’t come to that. The disorder of a fight would give the unknown traitors too much of an advantage. As long as we manage to outrun the threat, no one will be able to act against me without exposing themselves.”
Adan was silent for a while, but when Lynne opened his eyes to see if the boy was still paying attention, he was just met by Adan’s mirth-filled stare.
Lynne snorted and closed his eyes again.
Adan silently observed the man in front of her. On the surface, he looked calm, but from the heartbeat pounding in her ears, Adan knew that his body was pumping with adrenaline.
“Sai sees several flaws in Lynne’s plan,” her A.I. commented and Adan nodded in agreement.
“Indeed, but since I held back a bit on the truth . . .”
“The correct word in this situation is lied, Adan.”
Adan rolled her eyes. “Either way, given their head start, the wetter mud might actually delay them long enough. As for the traitors . . .” Adan pulled on the curtain in front of the window, peeking outside. “Well, we’ll see.”
There was a short break before the sudden sound of gushing water caused Adan to curiously pop her head outside the carriage, giving her a clear view of five female guards and two priestess assistants who had lined up their horses at the back of the group.
Seven streams of water stretched out from their palms into the ground bellow them but, oddly enough, the water didn’t flow freely into the ground, instead acting as a link between the women and the soil. Behind them, the hard-packed mud of the road slowly turned a shade darker, but apart from that it looked unchanged.
Adan narrowed her eyes, secretly enhancing her sight to get a closer look at the soil itself. Hydration data flashed by in front of her eyes, causing Adan’s brows to rise slightly in surprise.
“They’re pulling up the ground water?”
“According to Sai’s calculations, that is the most likely scenario. The amount of water flowing from the seven women does not add up to the amount needed to irrigate the road to this extent.”
“Hmm. . . .”
Adan glanced the other way. With Lynne’s carriage next to the Priestess’, the groups formation had become more compact, but it now also filled the entire road. It was getting late, so few people were still on the road, but those who remained scrambled to move out of the way of the stampeding horses.
“So domineering,” she muttered, neither approving or disapproving.
“What are you doing!?” Duke Kimba had finally noticed Adan’s head sticking out and hurried to chide her. “Get back inside!”
Adan winked at the man before she obediently pulled back.
“From the tone of his voice, I’d say the Duke is more concerned with your safety than mine.”
Lynne no longer had his eyes closed and was looking at Adan with a pensive gaze. Under his scrutiny, Adan just raised her shoulders dismissively and tapped at the red crystal in her chest. The message was clear – her massive mark made her a strong asset for the Sun Tribes – and Lynne seemed to accept it without further explaining.
Minutes passed. By the time fourty minutes had passed since they started pushing their horses forward with no sign of anyone hunting them, Adan could sense how many of the guards started to relax. The horses where getting tired – especially those pulling the two carriages – so the guards started to slow down, no longer bothering to push their mounts as hard as before. Some of them even started to curse Adan, blaming her for the taxing ride they had gone through.
Noticing the change, Adan shook her head. By now, she no longer needed to feel the vibrations in the ground to hear the approaching horsemen; they were less than five hundred meters away and would be arriving within five minutes. It was only the numerous bends in the road that allowed them to remain undetected from the others.
“Seems like there is going to be a fight. . . .” Adan signed silently for only her A.I. to hear. “What restrictive action would be taken if I participate?”
“Intervening in full-scale political wars with predicted fatalities above 1000 lives falls under Level 6 jurisdiction; apart from protecting individuals essential to your own mission, Sai will have no choice but to activate protocol E-965.”
Adan winced. “Really, that bad? Can’t you reclassify it as a Level 4, or possibly multiple Level 3’s?”
“Negative; there is too little uncertainty in this case. Sai is already being lenient.”
Adan clicked her tongue dismissively. A breach of protocol for a level 4 offense, that is to say actively altering the life-or-death fate of roughly ten people in a Type 0 civilization, would result in a verbal reprimand and a deduction of salary. Since Adan didn’t mind being yelled at and already had more money than she could spend in a hundred lifetimes, she would happily help out in such a situation, but at Level 6?
The E-965 protocol meant that she would receive an electric shock at 900 volts and 0.06 ampere, running through selected muscles in her body for several 5 second duration periods – in a normal human, this would not only risk stopping the heart, it would also start to break down cells and cause severe burns. For Adan however, this treatment would barely prevent her from moving, even less be life threatening, but it would still hurt like hell.
Breathing out heavily, Adan resigned to letting things run their course; she was no saint, after all.
“What’s wrong?” Lynne clearly noticed her dejected mood, but he seemed to think it was related to the lack of pursuers because he then continued to ask; “Upset that you made a mistake?”
“A mistake?” Adan chuckled lightly.
From Lynne’s pointed stare, it was clear that he too had started to doubt whether or not there actually had been any pursuers. After all, the speed of the horses in Lynne’s group were restricted by those pulling the two carriages. With only a kilometer’s head start, it was highly unlikely that they would be able to outrun the horses that only needed to carry their humans.
Adan raised one hand, spreading her five slender fingers wide. Lynne saw the gesture but didn’t seem to understand it; he frowned in confusion.
“What are you trying to say?”
Refraining from explaining, Adan paused for just a moment longer before folding in her pinky finger. A brief period later, the ring finger followed suite. With every finger that was folded down, Lynne looked increasingly confused. By the time only Adan’s fist remained raised, Lynne could no longer contain his curiosity and was about to speak again when suddenly . . .
“Hostiles spotted in the rear!”