The stifled silence in the room only lasted for an instant. Just as Lynne opened his mouth to say something, the Head Priest of the Sun sprang up and slammed his fist into the table.
“Such impudence!” he bellowed. “The secrets of the awakening are kept by the churches – not even the king may know of it, much less a tribe whelp like you!”
There was another slam and Duke Kimba sprang to his feet. “Repeat that if you dare to face my challenge!” Bright flames were flickering aggressively above Kimba’s clenched fist. The priest paled slightly at the sight of this, but seemed determined not to back down; he too stood up and ignited some smaller flames of his own.
Adan paid no attention to the other reactions in the room as she stared intently at the fire-bending taking place in front of her. Since she had come in contact with element benders, Adan’s A.I. had been frantically trying to figure out how all of it worked, but to no avail. The A.I. was clearly annoyed by this fact – much to Adan’s amusement.
“Back down, duke,” the priest spat with clear contempt. “If you won’t teach your people proper manners, I will!”
For a moment, it felt as if a fight was inevitable as the two men stared off, eyes filled with hostility.
“Calm down, gentlemen.” The moon priestess’ calm voice cut through the tension in the room like a knife through butter. “I’m sure the boy meant no offense. Being ignorant is not a crime.”
The head priest snorted, but was quick to grab the excuse to escape the fight. He sat back down, waving his sleeves dismissively.
Kimba hesitated for a moment before eventually calling back his flames and giving a slight bow to the priestess in gratitude. Lynn, on the other hand, secretly clenched his fists, causing Adan’s eyes to shine with mirth. While it might seem like the priestess was doing her a favor by stepping in, the woman had sneaked in an insult towards Adan in the process, and quite a fierce one at that. After all, knowledge is power, and ignorance had always played a role in the end of great civilizations throughout the universe. Adan didn’t doubt that this world functioned similarly, and was pleased both by Lynn’s insight and by the fact that he was mad on her behalf.
“Should I give a retort?” Adan asked her A.I. rhetorically.
“Sai doubts that it’s advisable,” the A.I. answered wryly anyway.
Adan ignored it and gracefully stood up. She gave a deep bow towards the head priestess before smiling innocently at the woman. “Thank you, priestess, for your understanding. With my family’s confinement to a small part of the woods, we have indeed lost a lot of the knowledge our ancestors once had. If I have caused offense, I give you my sincere thanks for being so magnanimous with your understanding. It was never my intention to intrude on your faith.”
Next to Adan, Lynn coughed to hide a burst of laughter as the priestess’ smile stiffened. The head priest didn’t seem to catch Adan’s meaning; he simply scoffed at her words and mumbled “barbarian” incoherently enough that only Adan could pick it up.
Just as it looked like the priestess was about to say something more, the King laughed and clapped his hands together.
“Speaking of faith, it is – as mentioned – only a fortnight left until the Eve of Moons. It will be the perfect day for my wife . . .”
“Future wife,” Lynne interrupted coldly, earning himself some scorn from the Head Priest and a light chuckle from the King.
“It will be the perfect day for my future wife to have her awakening. There will also be a celebration in the city; we need to make ample preparations.”
“King Fenix,” Duke Kimba spoke up, “construction has already started, and I am certain we will have no trouble meeting the deadline. It’s just . . .” The Duke hesitated a bit.
“Well, we earlier discussed the matter of Adan’s awakening, and the morning of the Eve of Moons is the optimal time for that ritual. Might I delegate some of my celebration duties so that I can organize this?”
“A fire awakening on the day of the Moons?” the Sun Priest scoffed. “Are you crazy?”
“Not at all, Priest Azar, but the ancient rituals of the Tribes differ from those of your new-founded monastery.”
“Preposterous!” The priest once again slammed his fist in the table, but this time it was burning violently, quickly leaving scorch marks in the wood. “You dare slander the Church of the Sun with this heathen nonsense?” The man looked ready to pounce, but before he could escalate the situation further, the King’s voice boomed through the dining hall.
As if fanned on by the King’s voice, the candles lighting the room brightened noticeably, their flames flickering threateningly along the walls. Adan would have felt the urge to whistle in awe if not for the instant, strong burning sensation that spread from her chest. It wasn’t painful, not really, but it felt violent; savage and uncontrollable.
“What’s going on?” Adan asked her A.I. as she clutched her chest, feeling the still cool crystal surface under her fingers.
“Sai doesn’t understand the question.”
“What do you mean you don’t understand the question? My chest feels like it’s on fire!”
The A.I. fell silent for a moment, and Adan could almost imagine the frown on its non-existing face.
“Sai is . . . confused. Sai can see an increase in activity in the parietal lobe, indicating an increased pain sensation. However, all nanobots show an unchanged body condition.” There was a brief pause before the A.I. continued, its voice uncertain: “There is, however, an increased vibration in the unidentified membrane around your cells.”
“So it’s related to the fire mark?” Coming to this conclusion, Adan’s gaze instantly shifted to Lynne next to her. Barely a second had passed since Adan’s mental conversation with her A.I. started, but Lynne’s face had paled considerably, intense pain contorting his face. Without thinking further, Adan was on her feet, pulling Lynne into an embrace and placing her own body between him and the King. “Prepare to control his body temperature. Numb pain receptors.”
“You will be fine,” Adan whispered in Lynne’s ear, feeling his tense body relaxing in her arms.
“King Fenix!” Both Kimba and the Priestess of the Moons were on their feet by now, yelling at their King. The Duke looked worried but otherwise unaffected, while the priestess staggered slightly. “They have yet to be awakened!”
“Ah.” At once, the burning feeling in Adan’s chest dissipated and some color returned to Lynne’s cheeks. “My apologies,” the King mused with a slightly embarrassed chuckle. “It slipped my mind in all the excitement.” He gave both Kimba and the priest a mirthless smile before turning his attention to Adan. “But I must admit that I’m a bit impressed with your reaction speed, Guard Adan. To be so attentive… If I didn’t know better, I would guess that your care for her is more than that of a bodyguard.”
There was a hint of a threat in the King’s voice, but Adan ignored it as she loosened her embrace around Lynne. The young man was practically back to normal, but his face seemed a bit rosier than usual. It was not an unattractive look on him. Adan smirked and turned to the king.
“If I didn’t know better, I would guess that your care for her is less than that of a future husband.”
Finally back in his room, Lynne collapsed on his bed with a heavy sigh. He could still hear the collected gasp of everyone in the room at Adan’s offensive words. In his bed, Lynne covered his eyes with his arm, shaking his head. He was surprised the King hadn’t court-martialed the brat on the spot. Just thinking of the possible repercussions in the days to come gave Lynne a headache.
“However . . .” Lynne’s thoughts trailed over to Adan’s voice, whispering gently in his ears. The sweet scent of almonds and burnt wood surrounding him.
“You will be fine, eh?” Lynne murmured, feeling his face heat up again. He sighed heavily. “I doubt it.”
“What do you doubt?”
Adan’s sudden voice caused Lynne to spring up in his bed. The insufferable youth was leaning against the hidden door between their rooms, golden eyes twinkling with mirth. “Damn those eyes!”
“What are you doing here?” Lynne pushed down his inner struggle, “I sent you back to your room!”
“True,” Adan nodded but walked deeper into the room, seemingly without a care in the world. “But you need help getting out of that dress, no?”
“I . . .” Lynne wanted to refuse, but knew it would be a lie. “I can sleep in it.”
Adan raised an unbelieving eyebrow. “I doubt you can breathe in that thing, let alone sleep in it.”
Grunting, Lynne begrudgingly turned around, giving Adan silent permission to deal with the intricate lacing on the dress’ back. He had to fight down a shiver as he felt Adan’s fingers brushing away the hair over his neck.
“You shouldn’t have been so confrontational at dinner,” Lynne reprimanded in order to focus his mind on something else. “You have gained enemies tonight.”
“The King?” Adan chuckled. “He isn’t that shortsighted. As for the others . . . well, you didn’t plan on making any friends here, anyway. I’ve helped you out.”
“That’s my future; you could still . . .”
“Make friends and live here afterwards?” Another chuckle, but this one felt different; lonelier, somehow. “This place is no more my home than it is yours.”
Lynne sat in a daze for a bit. He hadn’t really considered Adan’s plans for the future. All he really knew was that the boy had left his family in a forest somewhere and headed out to complete his awakening. He was an impressive Tracker, had near-impossible reflexes, had an unbelievably large mark and had even started a natural awakening in himself. Then there was the contradiction of total ignorance in local political dogmas but astute insights into political power in general. On their own, it would have been fine, but together it was all just too unbelievable.
Lynne absentmindedly fiddled with his hair, and the intricate braids reminded him of Adan’s story about his sister teaching him how to braid. A sister he must have left behind with unmarked parents.
Nothing made sense. Lynne knew their cooperation was fairly fragile, and that he shouldn’t pry, but he couldn’t help himself. “Who are you?” he asked, turning around, only to find Adan had already left the room.
The now undone lacing on the back of his dress caused it to slip to the ground, leaving Lynne’s back feeling cold an bare.
“You ran away,” the A.I. stated matter-of-factly as Adan sat down cross-legged on the floor.
“Then you wanted me to stay and tell the truth?”
“Suggestion rejected. Sai means you should have stayed and followed protocol. There are pre-prepared answers for questions like his; do you wish to review them?”
“Lynne is sharp. I fooled him before, but I doubt he would believe those explanations very much longer; there are too many inconsistencies.”
“Because you didn’t follow protocol.”
“Yes, Sai, because I didn’t follow protocol.” Adan sighed and stretched out on the floor. She gazed out through the minuscule window at the stars above, her eyes growing distant. “Sai, I’m tired.”
There was silence for a while, before a soft “. . . Sai knows” resounded in hear head. A longer silence followed. “Should Sai take corrective action?”
Adan sighed again and closed her eyes, her muscles tensing and then relaxing.