Taking a deep breath, Lynne steeled himself and walked through the open doorway. Inside, a vast hall spread out, its distant walls lit by evenly spaced lanterns. By the flickering light of the flames, the meticulously polished and obsidian-black marble floor seemed to move like water. It was mesmerizing, but Lynne forced himself to not look at it. Instead, he floated into the grand hall as if he were already the mistress of it.
‘The King is rumored to be firm, but kindhearted and just. Let’s not give him a wife he’ll get attached to…’ Lynne plotted in his heart. He gazed indifferently at his destination at the far end of the hall. There stood two grand thrones; one looked as if made of ice, the other as of molten lava, but they were otherwise identical in size and design.
Standing with his back to Lynne, a tall and muscular man leaned against the throne of ice as he talked quietly to the attendant who had been sent in earlier; neither seemed to care that Lynne had entered. Only the two maids standing off to the side acknowledged his presence as they stared at him with poorly hidden jealousy.
When four large strides still remained between him and the King, Lynne stopped. Without saying a word, he studied the back of the man who had ruled Solmane since the day when the former king died five years ago. The current king had only been sixteen at the time.
Lynne had never met the man, but had seen plenty of paintings of him, and even without the King turning around, Lynne could guess that they had done him justice. In the paintings, the King’s shoulders were wide with strength, his face chiseled and charming, but with brown eyes brimming with unyielding determination. The King was handsome – even as a man, Lynne had to admit that.
‘But ignoring your spouse-to-be when she’s standing right behind you? So much for being a kindhearted gentleman…’
Just as Lynne was considering how to give the King a disagreeable first impression of himself, a loud voice broke the solemn air in the hall. “Wow, would you look at that! It’s like water!”
Startled by the sudden outburst, everyone turned to look at Lynne, or, to be more precise, to look at the youth crouching just behind him. Adan was practically on his knees as he poked the hard floor with his dark-golden finger and traced the shadows that moved across it. In this light, Adan’s skin also seemed more alive than usual, somewhat glowing.
‘Feminine bastard,’ Lynne swore, annoyed at himself for noticing. His outward appearance betrayed nothing of his inner struggle, though. “No need to get so excited; it’s only stone, sir Adan,” Lynne said, rolling his eyes theatrically. “Do you not know to be quiet in the presence of your king, waiting until he finds you interesting enough to speak to?”
“Really?” Adan looked up from the floor, mischief flashing in his big eyes. “Can you be quiet that long, princess?”
“Why you little- . . !” Lynne swatted towards the still kneeling boy in anger, but was secretly pleased; Adan had replied as he expected him to. Out of the corner of his eye, Lynne could still see the King’s maids, and they had switched the jealousy in their faces for pure rage. Lynne imagined the King would be equally displeased at this tone and behavior.
“If you know, then remain silent!” One of the maids couldn’t hold her emotions back any further and finally snapped her rebuke. It might seem like she had aimed it at Adan, but Lynne wouldn’t let such a good opportunity slip by.
“Insolence! I am your future queen, yet you – a mere serving girl – dare bark orders at me? How very brave of you!” Lynne used the most domineering voice he could muster without blatantly giving away his gender, and it had instant effect. The maid shuddered, her frail body hitting the wall behind her as she backed away.
“I-. . .” the servant stuttered, but before she could manage to form a coherent sentence, a deep laughter filled the hall.
“Ha ha, I do love a woman with a bit of bite! We will get along just fine, you and I.”
With horror in his heart, Lynne stared at the King. Get along fine? The whole point was to not get along fine! Unfortunately, judging by the merriment in the man’s eyes, the King was serious in his statement.
“Give us this room, alone,” the King suddenly commanded, his eyes gleaming. “I must repent to my queen.”
Lynne swallowed. There was somewhat of a lustful hunger to that light in the King’s eyes, and the man kept taking sweeping looks of Lynne’s body. Lynne felt oddly naked under the King’s gaze and momentarily froze. Was this it? Would he not manage to hide his true identity further than this?
“I ordered the room emptied.” The King’s suddenly firm voice brought Lynne back to his senses. There were no longer any servants present in the room, but the King was staring intently at Adan, who hadn’t moved an inch from Lynne’s side.
“Bodyguard,” Adan replied indifferently and jabbed a thumb in Lynne’s direction. Lynne quickly held back the smile that was about to form on his lips.
“The princess is safe here,” the King assured.
“I’m sure,” Adan replied but glanced off to the side. Lynne didn’t understand the gesture, but the King’s eyes widened noticeably when Adan added: “but it would be unfair to leave.”
There was a moment of awkward silence before the King laughed once. “Emberon, get out here.”
To Lynne’s surprise, a lean man quietly stepped out from a shadow that Lynne hadn’t even realized existed in the room to begin with. The mystery man knelt in front of the King.
“Your Highness.” The man’s voice was rasp and somehow complemented the large scar that marred his otherwise handsome face. He was dressed from head to toe in black, melding almost perfectly with the floor.
“What do you think, Emberon – does this youth’s presence even the odds?”
Emberon got up, and with one big step he closed the distance between himself and Adan. Lynne almost flinched in surprise, but Adan himself seemed utterly unfazed. Not even when Emberon used a dagger to push aside the fabric that partially covered that impossibly large mark on his chest did Adan so much as flinch.
“An unawakened pup who doesn’t know his own insignificance.” The man used his dagger to tap against Adan’s mark. “A bee could do more harm.”
An odd look flashed across Adan’s eyes, and Lynne could have sworn he heard him laughing, but the boy’s face remained unchanged. “Still staying. Unless the princess sends me away, of course,” Adan responded calmly.
Emberon’s nose twitched, as if he’d smelled something bad, but in the end the scar-faced man took a step back, clearly waiting for further instructions from his king.
The latter smiled oddly and gave Lynne a pointed look, urging him to send Adan away, but Lynne didn’t feel like obliging, even though he knew that Emberon’s words were true. “Whatever Your Highness feels like telling me, Your Highness can say in front of sir Adan. The man has great potential, and I intend to make his position permanent.”
“Oh?” The King stepped forward – claiming the space Emberon had just left – and gripped Adan’s chin. He turned the youth’s head left and right as if to inspect it. “Handsome enough, I admit. A bit feminine, but I understand some women prefer that.” The King paused and glanced at Lynne, a trace of malice in his eyes. “Should I be worried?”
Lynne coughed to hide his instinctive reaction to shout an outright refusal at the King’s statement. Such a response would only make the King more suspicious, something that could get Adan killed.
“Your Highness,” Lynne started but was quickly interrupted by the King.
“Fenix will suffice for you.”
“King Fenix-. . .”
By now, the King had moved away from Adan and instead stood in front of Lynne. Despite Lynne’s rather impressive height, the King was taller still, towering nearly a head over him. The man’s breathing was steady, but his eyes kept scrutinizing Lynne up and down as if he could see right through the silky fabric of his blue dress. The King seemed to like what he saw…
Lynne cleared his throat. “Very well. Fenix, don’t be absurd. He might have potential as a guard, but my standards for a spouse are higher than that.”
“Oh?” The King’s brows arched. When he spoke again, his voice was husky and deep. “Then why don’t you send your lap-dog-in-training away so we can explore those… higher standards of yours?” Without warning, the King grabbed Lynne’s hand, and, before the latter had the chance to resist, a slimy warmth spread from the center of Lynne’s palm – the result of a kiss.
Lynne suppressed a shudder and quickly yanked his hand away. “We shall do no such thing! Before the wedding I will not be left alone with you – I have a reputation to uphold!”
“Is that so?” The King’s smile turned wolfish. “And here I thought you were trying to lose your reputation.”
“Wha-. . .” Dazed, Lynne was at a loss for words, but King Fenix had already moved back to his throne and sat down.
“Let us then save the discussion of your preferences for a later time. . .” The King paused, once again eyeing Lynne’s body boldly. “For our wedding night, perhaps.”
“Your Highness!” Lynne protested, but the King raised his hand to quiet him.
“For the last time, call me Fenix.” The King leaned back in his throne. “As I said, we’ll leave that for later. More importantly, I hear you had quite some trouble getting here.”
His tone indicated that he wanted to hear more, so Lynne started narrating everything that had happened since he left his father’s keep in Hayden. He didn’t mind adding the kidnapping attempt he himself had staged, happily blaming it on the same unknown people who were behind the rest.
While listening, the King’s eyes showed signs of surprise more than once, and he often glanced over at Adan, who silently stood by Lynne’s side with an expression of acute boredom on his face.
“This is very serious,” King Fenix muttered solemnly once Lynne was done.
“It is.” Lynne agreed. “If the Valdmani have grown this bold, a full-scale invasion can’t be far off.”
The King shook his head before grabbing his own chin, his forehead folded in a deep frown. “This matter must be seriously investigated. If the Valdmani indeed have such plans, fire must be met with fire.”
“Negotiations are out of the question?”
“You tell me. If things are as you suspect, the Valdmani sent people to assassinate my future queen – the first ice bender in a millennium – and hoped to instigate a civil war in the process. I think the time for negotiations passed some time ago.”
Lynne sighed. Wartime might be when his family shone the brightest, but Lynne knew better than most the horrors that all-out war would bring. As far as he was concerned, the best battle was one that could be avoided. If that option was impossible, however . . .
“My family will protect the border and the citizens of Solmane with our lives.”
A slight smile tugged at the King’s lips. “I know you will. I have news from your father; he will be arriving in a week’s time.”
“Yes. We shall discuss our options further then.”
“Understood.” Lynne clenched his fists, the gesture hidden by his long sleeves.
“Until then, I suggest you familiarize yourself with your new home and prepare for your awakening. If war is coming, your skills will make all the difference.” The King looked at Adan. “You too.”
Adan raised his right hand to his forehead – palm down – and flicked it forward in an odd motion Lynne hadn’t seen before.
The King seemed to share Lynne’s confusion, because the former frowned for a moment, then shook his head dismissively, as if giving up on figuring it out.
“Mistress Cain!” the King called instead, his voice reverberating through the hall. Seconds later, a small door opened up and an elderly woman stepped out. While her white hair and wrinkled face revealed her seniority, the woman’s back was straight as an arrow, her gaze clear and alert.
“Yes, King Fenix.” The woman barely curtsied.
“Would you be so kind as to show Princess Lynne of Hayden her new chambers? Her bodyguard, too.”
Mistress Cain eyed both Lynne and Adan briefly before repeating her earlier shallow curtsy. “Naturally.”
“Good.” The King smiled. “Oh, and send a messenger to the head priestess of the Moons; I believe my future wife needs a new guide for her awakening.”
This comment earned Lynne a second look from the lady, and for some reason he couldn’t help but feel a bit embarrassed under her unbridled stare. He could only nod sheepishly.
“I see.” The woman looked away. “I will see it done.”
“Great. You may leave.” The King gestured for Lynne and Adan to follow Mistress Cain. “I will call for you later.”
Lynne responded with an indifferent nod before dragging Adan with him to follow behind the elderly woman as she left the main hall through one of the grander side doors. Once the doors had closed behind them and they had walked a few meters, Adan paused his steps slightly. He caught his step again so quickly, however, that Lynne thought little of it, entirely missing the amused smile on Adan’s face as the youth hurried after him.