“Don’t mess with me,” Lynne pushed, clearly unamused. “Will you explain how you pulled that off or not?”
Faced with Lynne’s questioning, hundreds of pre-prepared and Federation-approved replies flashed by in front of Adan’s eyes, but she felt reluctant to use any of them. She sighed.
“Would you accept it if I simply said that I have good reflexes?”
“Then how about if I say that I’m a genetically altered being from beyond the skies, created for stellar warfare and destruction?”
Searing pain ran through Adan’s limbs and head as she spoke the honest truth, but her face revealed nothing of her discomfort.
“Sai apologizes,” the A.I. comforted her with a troubled voice. “Punishment is in Sai’s programmed protocol. . . .”
Adan ignored the A.I. – she knew the consequences of her actions well enough – and focused instead on Lynne’s reaction to her words, but she was quickly disappointed.
“What? No!” Lynne looked angry as he shouted and pulled back. “Look, if you don’t want to tell me, then fine, but don’t go insulting my intelligence.”
Adan smiled meekly. His response was expected, yet it stung more than she thought it would.
“Then you tell me, Lynne, what do you think allowed me to react as fast as I did, hmm? I’m sure you can figure it out.”
At Adan’s prompting, Lynne’s angry expression shifted to a more pensive one, his elegant brow slightly frowning in thought. Adan let him think in silence, their carriage rocking back and forth on the uneven road a few times before a slight flash of revelation surfaced in Lynne’s eyes.
“Don’t tell me you’re a natural, that you’ve started your awakening on your own? If so, your attunement to the flames on that arrow could allow you to feel it coming without actually seeing it. . . but the distance was still so short. . . .”
Adan remained silent, making a point of allowing her smile to grow more mischievous and proud as Lynne continued his reasoning.
“Wait, you’re a tracker!” Lynne suddenly remembered. “Supposedly, your reflexes should be faster than normal – although not so fast as to catch that arrow with only that. However, the combination of the two. . . .” He considered the different possibilities for a while longer, but when he noticed the now smug look on Adan’s face, the young man seemed convinced that he had found the truth.
He leaned back in the cabin’s seat, his icy blue eyes glowing with mixed emotions. Eventually, he sighed in resignation.
“Well, at least this will make it easier to eventually run away from the King. . . .” Lynne muttered.
Adan chuckled to hide her own dejection. It was a classic manipulation technique that almost always worked – being unbelievably vague in one’s descriptions to allow the listener to pick their own most logical explanations – but Adan would have liked it if Lynne hadn’t been so easily convinced. It bothered her more than it should.
“Your Highness, we have arrived!” Colonel Dallas’ strong and uncharacteristically excited voice called from outside, effectively ending all talks about Adan’s skills and their origin.
The door to Lynne’s black carriage was opened from the outside and Duke Kimba’s figure appeared in the opening. He couldn’t help but notice that – as before – the Duke’s gaze first sought out Adan before quickly turning to Lynne.
‘His concern isn’t so surprising anymore if Adan is a natural. . . .’ Lynne mused, his self-made truth seeming even more probable.
“Lady Hayden,” the duke greeted respectfully. “Your father mentioned in his letter that it is your first time visiting Fire Isle.” The man’s dark eyes darted towards Adan before continuing. “I would recommend stepping out of your carriage to take a look; it’s quite a view.”
“With pleasure.” Lynne didn’t hesitate before agreeing. Now that he was finally here, the nerves he had managed to keep in check so far threatened to unravel. Any break that pushed their arrival time forward, even just a little, was more than welcome.
Lynne stretched out his hand, prepared to use the offered stability of Kimba’s own hand to climb out, but a significantly paler hand intercepted him.
Adan was so close that his warm breath brushed against Lynne’s ear as he spoke, joined by a subtle sweet smell that he couldn’t quite place. A pleasurable shudder ran through Lynne’s body, intensified by the soft heat spreading from their touching hands. Instinctively, Lynne attempted to pull back, but Adan’s grip wouldn’t budge. For a moment, Lynne was amazed that such a delicate-looking hand could have so much strength.
“Is something wrong, my Lady?”
That infuriatingly smug voice snapped Lynne back to reality. Adan had already backed out of the cabin and was waiting for Lynne to follow.
“Of course not,” Lynne replied, his voice snappier than he had intended. He mustered up every ounce of his elegance as he too stepped forward. Once outside, Lynne’s confused thoughts instantly evaporated.
He was standing on a small hill, looking out over a lake so enormous that he could barely see the end of it. Seemingly in the middle of the body of water was a sugar-top-shaped island, partially covered in houses of various sizes. At this distance, however, it was difficult to say where one building ended and the next began, and yet one structure was simply impossible to miss.
It was the gigantic building that was situated right at the top of the island. Its walls were pitch-black, apart from the two towers at each end of the building; one blood-red the other ice-blue.
“It’s a volcano. . . .” Adan’s amazed and slightly dazed murmur drew Lynne’s attention.
“A what?” He had never heard that word before.
“Ah. . .” Adan started, looking slightly embarrassed.
‘A cute look on him.’ Lynne mused. ‘Wait, what?’
“The island,” Adan continued, clearly ignorant of Lynne’s internal crisis. “It’s the top of a mountain that breathes fire. My family calls it a volcano.”
“O-oh, you mean a cykjab?” Lynne forced himself to look away and calm down. “Yes it is. But don’t worry, though; it isn’t active.”
The tone in Adan’s voice caused Lynne to look back at the boy, only to find an enigmatic smile on the latter’s face. Rolling his eyes, Lynne was about to explain that the volcano hadn’t had an eruption in over a thousand years when a sudden dull trumpet sounded out over the lake. Lynne tensed.
Moments later, two dozen finely-dressed men and women came riding out from the large gatehouse that guarded the entrance to the only bridge between the shore and Fire Isle. Seeing this, Lynne couldn’t help but clench his fists tightly in his sleeves.
It was the envoys of the king.
This was it: the point of no return. Every cell within Lynne’s body was telling him – screaming at him – to run away. To not let the king see him nor allow himself to be taken to the holy place that doubled as both castle and church.
But he mustn’t – he couldn’t.
“I’m kind of regretting not leaving when we had the chance,” Lynne murmured so softly that he doubted anyone would hear him.
To his surprise, Lynne heard fabric shifting behind him and for a moment he thought that perhaps Adan was about to pat him on the shoulder or something. However, no comforting touch nor any reassuring words came. Lynne almost laughed at his sudden weakness.
‘You’ve made it this far without relying on anyone but family, Lynne Hayden. Don’t fail now.’
Lynne straightened his back and took a deep breath to steady himself. Regardless of his gender, he was a future ruler of ice and snow. He told himself to be as his element; cold, detached and unforgiving.
Standing behind Lynne, Adan held back a sigh as her hand fell back to her side. Seeing the beautiful man in front of her tensing in obvious fear, Adan had felt a sudden urge to comfort him. To assure Lynne that she would do what she could to keep him and his family alive as they made it through this ordeal, but she knew that would be a lie.
Her first priority right now was finding a way home – or at least a way to contact her sister. If she succeeded, or if her investigations led her away from Lynne’s side, Adan would have no choice but to leave. Even if she could stay – perhaps ordered by her superiors to learn more about the mark in her chest – Adan would still be prohibited from intervening too much in this planet’s natural course of history.
‘I will do what I can, while I can.’
The distance from the hill to the gatehouse was neither very long nor particularly short, but the king’s envoy clearly wanted to make an impression as they approached at a slow yet steady pace.
The twenty-four horses were all black with clear white manes and moved in a manner Adan could only describe as elegantly bouncy.
“According to Sai’s records, humans on ancient Tellus used to train their horses to run in a similar style,” the A.I. informed and soon an image of a fancy woman in a tight suit and high hat appeared in front of Adan’s eyes. Underneath the woman, her huge stallion was indeed running very much like the approaching party. “They called the style a passage.”
“It is a very inefficient form of running.”
“On ancient Tellus, this style was only meant to be used during competitions and performances. The gallop or the trot were used for speed.”
“I can see why. . . .”
A full ten minutes had passed when the King’s envoy finally arrived, their ages varied but the look of importance on their faces the same.
“Princess Lynne of Hayden,” the oldest and most refined-looking man in the group greeted with a serious tone. “I’m the King’s steward and have been sent to escort you to the palace.”
“I see,” Lynne’s tone was neither polite nor rude. “And the others?”
“Reverend Mother Amaris may naturally join Your Highness when Your Highness greets the King. Colonel Dal-”
Lynne raised his hands to stop the elder’s words. “Mother Amaris has been relieved of her duties,” he informed coldly. “There is no need for her to join me.”
For only a heartbeat, the old steward failed to hide his surprise, but he was clearly a weathered man who was a master of his own trade, because he quickly adapted to the situation.
“Very well. In that case, the reverend mother may go wherever her holiness sees fit.” The man harked his throat. “As for colonel Dallas, she will report to her superiors and bring the city guards and prisoners with her. Duke Kimba will be called upon the by the king separately at a later hour.”
“And my bodyguard?”
“Bodyguard?” The old steward inspected the people standing behind Lynne, his eyes eventually falling on Adan. “Ah, the Sun Tribe youth. I assume he will be called upon together with Duke Kimba, if at all. His services as a protector are no longer needed.”
Lynne shook his head, his midnight-blue hair flowing around his face. “I disagree, steward. Only I myself can dismiss employees in my care.”
“As can the King,” the steward added hastily with narrowed eyes.
“Naturally, but has he given an explicit order to discuss my personal bodyguards?”
There was a brief pause before the steward admitted that he had not. Lynne smiled coldly, and with that the matter was settled.
Adan was given permission to join Lynne, and while she could tell that Duke Kimba wanted to protest, the latter held himself back in the end. Lynne was led to a horse of his own which was in stark contrast to the others since its colors were inverted; a black mane and a snow-white coat.
The smug smile Adan received from the envoy who explained that they had not expected an additional rider so there was no mount for Adan stiffened when she simply shrugged and replied that she preferred to run, anyway. It quickly turned smug again, though, so Adan wasn’t surprised when the horses suddenly broke out in an elegant gallop, clearly wishing to leave her behind.
Lynne had been about to reprimand the king’s steward for their behavior when Adan winked at him playfully and started running. She quickly caught up with the horses and then kept a steady pace with Lynne’s mount. The distance to the gatehouse wasn’t that great and at their speed it only took a minute or two to get there, but Adan’s behavior still earned her a few astounded stares. Even Lynne kept his eyes fixed on Adan, his eyes filled both with wonder and satisfaction. She guessed he was contemplating how to use her skills to run away from the king.