Lynne really couldn’t take his eyes of the youth next to him.
‘Is this bastard for real? Who the heck can keep an even pace with a galloping horse?’ Lynne had seen his father’s female soldiers fighting on the battlefield plenty of times before. Just like their element, these women were swift and agile, making them extremely difficult targets. But their movements were in short bursts, their speed only lasting a few seconds – it was nothing like what Adan was pulling off now, and the bumpkin wasn’t even fully awoken yet. ‘I can kind of understand why the founding king had so much trouble dealing with the Sun Tribes. If all their trackers are like this. . . .’
Sunken in thought, Lynne barely noticed the ever closer gatehouse that was rapidly growing in the corner of his eye. It was only when his horse slowed down on its own accord that he realized they had already arrived. Lynne looked up. From this close, the gatehouse was quite an impressive building; the walls were elegantly carved out of a black volcanic rock, but a few beautiful lines here and there could do nothing to hide the fact that the purpose of its structure was defense, something the arm-thick bars of the raised city gate attested to even further.
“Princess Hayden!” several guards standing on either side of the entrance shouted in unison, their hands covering the elemental marks on their chests in salute.
Lynne had to remind himself not to mirror the gesture – he didn’t want to gain these people’s respect, even if he truly believed they deserved a show of his.
“What now?” he asked the steward instead, sounding impatient. “Considering our rush in getting here, I had assumed that we are on a tight schedule.”
The steward glanced to Lynne’s left – at Adan no doubt – but whatever the man thought of the youth’s performance, his eyes didn’t betray it. His gaze was quick to return to Lynne. “Princess, I shall lead Your Highness to the palace, where the King awaits. Please, follow me.”
With a slight smile, the steward urged his horse forward, and Lynne’s own mount needed no prompting to fall in a few meters behind him. The rest of the King’s envoys then formed two neat lines at his back. Adan never left Lynne’s side.
Slowly, the group started crossing the long bridge, the crystal-clear, blue water below it momentarily distracting Lynne’s racing mind. He quickly got other things to think about, however, because the closer they got to the island, the more convinced Lynne became that he could hear cheering. Looking up, Lynne could faintly see dozens of heads popping out over the city walls that surrounded the island. Standing further down the bridge, guards were blocking the path of an increasing amount of people who craned their necks to get a better look at Lynne.
“Look, look! That must be the princess!” someone shouted.
“Wow she’s so pretty!” a child chimed in.
“Have you ever seen such a prominent marking?”
“Blessed be the divine – we can finally push back the Valdmani!”
Hearing the crowd’s happy cheers, Lynne swallowed. He knew how hard the war between the two nations had become, and while there was a brief reprieve right now, the attacks on his life seemed to suggest that the fighting was about to begin again. The addition of an ice bender would change everything, but if they knew the truth, they wouldn’t welcome the “change” Lynne brought.
‘I really should have left when I had the chance,’ Lynne lamented privately, his fists clutching the horse’s reins tightly while his face remained unchanged.
“You did a noble thing for these people.” Adan’s soft voice suddenly reached his ears. “Such acts always have a price.”
Surprised, Lynne looked down at the youth next to him. The latter still had his gaze focused on the gathered crowd up ahead, and for a moment, Lynne wondered if he’d imagined Adan speaking to him altogether. A brief glance from the boy told him otherwise, however.
“You will manage,” Adan ensured him, his voice clearer this time, and although the words were simple, Lynne found himself smiling slightly at his willingness to believe them.
“Of course she will manage,” snorted the envoy riding closest behind Lynne. “Her Highness is our future queen and ice bender; how could riding through such a small crowd as this possibly be a problem?”
A lopsided smile formed on Adan’s lips, but the envoy’s snide comment was otherwise ignored. Lynne suppressed a chuckle but then frowned, feeling like something was wrong with the previous exchange of words but unable to put his finger on what it was.
‘Am I overthinking things?’
“Sai is an advanced nanoquantum sub-dermal artificial intelligence without parallel in the known universe, yet you use Sai as a messenger girl,” the A.I. grumbled in Adan’s head as the latter observed the crowd they were approaching. “If you want to give motivational speeches, do so yourself!”
“Oh, come on,” Adan coaxed. “The nanobots are already inside him; what’s the harm of using them a bit?”
“That is in violation of Sai’s intended purpose!”
The corner of Adan’s lips twitched. “Really, now? It’s not like you haven’t manipulated other people’s hearing before. . . . If I didn’t know better I’d say that I’ve hurt your pride, Ms. high-tech S.A.I.”
“You have . . .”-a millisecond pause-“. . . done no such thing. Sai is your A.I. to use as you see fit, and therefore lacks such emotions as personal pride.”
“Uh-huh.” Adan wasn’t fooled but she let the matter drop. For now.
Instead, she returned her focus on the ever-growing crowds that waited on the Fire Isle’s side of the bridge. Soldiers had started opening up a path for Lynne and the envoys, but unless reinforcements arrived soon, it would be hard to keep the people at bay.
“You’re quite popular, Princess,” Adan teased.
“It’s the power I bring with me that’s popular,” Lynne corrected, a slight frown still present on his elegant face. “The conflict with the Valdmani has been hard on them – on all of us.”
There were only a few strides left until the horses would step off the bridge, and with Lynne this close, the crowd grew wilder. Adan couldn’t help but be a bit fascinated by the variation of praise and requests that the people placed on Lynne’s shoulders. It ranged from straightforward things such as praising his beauty and hoping that he would become a just queen, to asking him to bless their unborn children with a bright future or prevent their crops from failing.
‘What do they think he is? Some divine entity with absolute power? Even I would have a hard time living up to some of these things.’
The steward’s horse was already ashore, and as Lynne followed, one of the more common shouts could be heard yet again: “Princess, Princess! Please, rid us of the Valdmani once and for all!” The crowd joined in with cheers, covering the other half of the person’s message: “And freeze in the Sun Tribe bastards while you’re at it!”
While others hadn’t heard, Adan naturally caught the man’s words with ease. The hate in his voice and behind the message itself left a bad taste in her mouth, but more than anything, Adan felt pity. Pity for both the speaker’s ignorance and the resented people of the Sun Tribe. How many times had the universe not seen scenarios such as this play out over the millennia? Who knows, perhaps even the Valdmani were despised without due cause.
“Make way for the future Queen!” the same envoy that had been snickering at Adan earlier called out to the crowds as Lynne’s horse finally stepped off the bridge and onto the Fire Isle’s cobbled road. For a moment, there was utter silence, before the cheers began again, yet another notch wilder this time. As if drawn by the shouts, even more people came running out from the side streets, and at last there even started to be some people of the Sun Tribes among them.
Adan’s eyes narrowed, numerous data charts flashing by on her retina regarding the behavior of the crowd.
“Damn it,” she sighed.
“Huh?” Lynne had heard Adan’s curse, but she couldn’t understand the reason behind it.
“Hold on tight to your horse,” Adan whispered, discreetly shortening the distance between the two of them. “There is about to be a riot.”
“What are you talking about?” Lynne felt even more confused. The people here were all smiling and cheering happily; how could there be a riot just like that?
However, Adan didn’t get the chance to explain himself; Lynne couldn’t tell where or why it started, but suddenly the air was filled with panicked cries and angry shouts. Chaos broke out on both sides of the parted path, as women and children pushed to move away from the unknown source of disorder, but were blocked by the city soldiers who had orders to protect their future queen.
These soldiers barked orders at the crowd to stay back and calm down, but without effect. Threats about making arrests then filled the air, but, if anything, the agitation among the people only rose. Afraid to harm the people, the soldiers were forced back.
Lynne’s mind raced. Although the crowd seemed more enticed by panic than rage at the moment, that could change quickly, and even if it didn’t, the sheer amount of people involved in such a cramped place could easily lead to people getting seriously hurt. From his elevated position on the horseback, Lynne could see more soldiers arriving in the distance, but it was clear that they didn’t want to harm the citizens as they tried to make their way to the center of the unrest – their approach was slow and ineffective.
“Talk about overreacting,” Adan murmured, his eyes scanning both the crowd’s panic and the King’s officials that had moved to surround Lynne in a protective ring. “All this just to get a look at you? Where is a bucket of cold water when you need it?”
Light flashed in Lynne’s eyes. “Water benders, drench them!” His voice was loud and firm, but the female soldiers and envoys he spoke to were too surprised by his sudden order to understand him and didn’t act on his words. “Must I be more specific? Use your water to cool down the heated heads of the rioting people. Now!”
His last shout did the trick. Like a flash flood – literally – water gushed out from the people guarding Lynne and slammed into the crowd. Surprised by the sudden onslaught, most people tripped and fell, the water pushing them back. Lynne could only hope that no one would be too badly hurt during the execution of his order.
At his command, the water stopped, and like bruised, wet dogs, the people slowly staggered back to their feet, their earlier agitation replaced by shock.
With as unfeeling eyes as he could muster, Lynne inspected the crowd. Although it couldn’t be denied that Sun Tribe aboriginals had taken more damage during the earlier panic than the rest, no one seemed to have sustained anything worse than a few broken bones – a harsh end to what should have been a happy occasion, but at least they were alive.
For a while, the cobbled street was quiet, save for a few moans of pain. Many looked around the street in confusion, others looked at Lynne with varying emotions in their eyes. The King’s steward was one of the latter.
“Tend to the wounded and find out what happened,” he eventually ordered one of the city’s soldiers before returning his attention to Lynne. “My apologies for this unsightly behavior, Princess. I can assure Your Highness that the people of Fire Isle aren’t normally this ill-mannered.”
“I shall have to take your word for it,” Lynne replied, doing his best to sound unconvinced. “Can we move on now?”
“Certainly! Follow me.” The steward gathered his horse’s reins and urged the animal forward. No soldiers were needed to clear a path this time.
Although confined to an island, the Solmane nation’s capital was by no means small; despite the slightly higher tempo that the King’s steward had set after the incident by the bridge, it still took nearly an hour before they reached the huge building at the top of the island’s highest peak.
This close, the massive black building was seemingly without end, and numerous guards in pitch-black uniforms patrolled the area. The group dismounted and entered the palace. Once inside, a vast courtyard garden greeted them.
On either side of the courtyard stood the two towers that had been visible from outside; on the left, the deep-red tower with several rivers of burning flames making their way up the side walls; on the right, the dark-blue tower with streams of water weaving their way downwards in intricate patterns. At the center of the garden was a fountain where both elements met – fire and water – both of them swirling around one another as if alive. Clearly, the effect was kept alive by the white-robed men and women that were seated around the fountain.
Adan whistled. As impressive as the sight of this courtyard was, Adan was even more impressed by the data analysis that was flashing by in her mind – or rather, the lack of it. It was very rare that her A.I. had no idea how a phenomenon came about, but apart from the thermal readings and detailed descriptions of how the water particles in the fountain moved, the A.I. was stumped.
“Sai notices an odd vibration in the affected elements, but the gathered data is insufficient to determine its cause.” The A.I. sounded a bit annoyed, but Adan could tell that there was excitement there, too. She snickered softly, pleased at the presence of emotions within her supposedly unfeeling companion.
“This is the Elemental Garden,” the steward explained as he led Lynne and Adan down the path towards the fountain. “The tower on your right belongs to the Sisterhood of the Moons – Your Highness’ church – while the tower on the left is the Brotherhood of the Sun’s. Only the highest-ranking priests and priestesses of both churches are allowed to reside here, but they have been a great support for the Solmani king and queen over the years.”
Adan was walking a few steps behind Lynne and couldn’t avoid noticing the latter stiffen slightly at the steward’s words. It would seem he didn’t share the latter’s opinion.
“This way, Your Highness,” the steward continued as he urged Lynne to follow him past the central fountain and towards the grandiose structure beyond it. There, the walls were once more made of black stone, but golden etchings decorated door and window frames, making it stand out nonetheless. “This is Solmane’s center of power – the Royal Hall. The King awaits inside.”
The steward paused at the door, whispering in an attendant’s ear to announce their arrival to the King. The attendant scurried off through a smaller side door, while the old steward turned to Lynne.
“Princess Lynne of Hayden, please proceed.”
As the man bowed and gestured towards the large, black doors, two attendants stepped forward and pushed them open. A heavy scent of smoke and cinnamon, as well as something sweeter, drifted out from the dark room beyond.
In front of Adan, Lynne straightened his back and walked forward.