Adan watched the shocked expression of the young man in front of her and had to do everything in her might not to laugh out loud. His reaction was simply too adorable.
“The youth’s expression is textbook shock. Sai will save it as reference material,” the A.I. commented with some traces of humor, finally sounding less upset with Adan.
“Oh, you are speaking to me now?” she teased, but only got a snort in response.
Adan didn’t mind. She knew that her A.I. did not approve of her order not to treat her more superficial wounds. With the nanobots in her system, even ruptured organs could be repaired within minutes, much less a few cuts and bruises, but Adan knew that she wouldn’t be able to hide the damaged clothes, and it would be too suspicious if she had no wounds to match.
The same went for her decision to reveal her true gender. With her new clearance level, Adan didn’t really have any reason to hide it anymore; who cares if they find her threatening, she could just beat them all down. Additionally, while she did appreciate seeing more of Lynne’s body, she hadn’t wanted to force him to make his way to safety in nothing but his underpants.
Noticing that Lynne still hadn’t snapped out of his stuttering stupor, Adan smiled mischievously. With an elegant motion, she moved to close the space between them, but Lynne instinctively took a step back. Adan laughed and bent to pick up the bundle he had dropped to the ground. She held it out to the young man.
“Well?” Adan gave the bundle a meaningful glance, clearly asking if Lynne would help her.
The man didn’t get the message. He kept backing up until his back hit the stone wall behind him.
“You . . . you’re a woman?”
Adan tilted her head, still smiling. “Have I ever said I wasn’t?”
Lynne’s eyes twitched.
“But, but your element. . . .”
“You are a male ice bender, Lynne. Don’t limit your mind: anything is possible.”
“Sai would like to point out that anything is actually not possible,” Adan’s A.I. intervened.
“Seriously Sai? I have been blasted into a different dimension and can now create fire practically out of thin air. I’d say the possibilities are fairly unlimited by now.”
Unaware of her internal dialog, Lynne still struggled with adapting to the reality before him. Adan watched how his face went from shock to horror to embarrassment and back again. Adan imagined that he was going through all the interactions they had over the past couple of months and now didn’t know how to handle the situation.
Finding his initial reaction entertaining enough, Adan decided to help him out of his daze.
“Don’t worry, Princess, I won’t bite,” she said with a wink as she shook the bundle of medicines in her hand again and slightly turned to show her back. “Will you help me out or should I do it myself.”
Lynne’s eyes widened and subconsciously stepped forward. He grabbed Adan’s shoulders and turned her back towards the fire to get a better view. Adan knew that her back was not a pretty sight at the moment. There were several cuts and bruises crisscrossing her dark skin and a deep laceration over her shoulder blade still had some gravel bits lodged in it and was seeping orange-tinted blood.
“Sit,” Lynne commanded, his confused mind sharp again, and quickly went to work on Adan’s back. He didn’t ask Adan to take off the top, probably out of consideration for her gender, but it wasn’t really needed; the BioArmor had intentionally been split open over her back, mimicking badly torn fabric.
“This will sting,” Lynne warned as he used some cloth straps and a bottle of disinfectant to clean the cuts and wipe away blood from Adan’s back.
Pain like burning fire stung her back, but Adan didn’t even flinch. Her A.I. could have numbed her senses, but it was clearly still mad about Adan’s previous actions and felt she should suffer for them a bit.
“This will sting more,” the man warned again before pulling out a needle and thread. He handed Adan a bottle of booze. “You might want to distract yourself.”
“I don’t get drunk that fast,” Adan laughed, but she didn’t refuse the alcohol. Pulling off the cap with her teeth, Adan gulped down two mouthfuls of strong wine. She deliberately let some drops escape her lips and run down her neck seductively, but Lynne didn’t seem to notice. His concerned gaze was locked on her shoulder blade. Carefully, Lynne started stitching up the worst of her wounds.
Slightly disappointed, Adan clicked her tongue and drank another mouthful of wine. The drink was bitter, clearly not meant for fine dining, and Adan disliked this type of wine the most. A small smile tugged at her lips nonetheless.
“This is actually quite good. . . .”
By the time Lynne was done treating Adan’s back and wrapping it in gauze, the faint light of dawn was already lightening the sky. It was still a few hours before actual sunrise, but it would quickly become brighter.
Exhausted, Lynne sprawled on his back. He knew that they couldn’t stay here much longer but he was really tired.
“Sleep for a bit,” he heard Adan comment. “We’ll head out at sunrise.”
Lynne glanced up at Adan. The young man – no, young woman – was still sitting in the same nonchalant posture she had when he started dealing with her wounds hours earlier. She didn’t seem bothered by the quite large amount of wine she had drunk by now, nor by the pain of her injuries. Even the stitches hadn’t fazed her.
“What really happened in the city?” he asked, holding back the bigger questions he wanted to ask. “Why would the king’s bodyguard betray him?”
Adan glanced down at Lynne.
“You think I know?”
“Don’t you?” he asked back. “I feel like you always know more,” Lynne chuckled, “and less, at the same time.”
For a moment Adan looked a bit stunned, but her following smile left Lynne equally stunned. The dying embers of the fire reflected in her bright eyes, giving even more warmth to her already heart-melting smile. The swooning looks that the girls in Prayer Village had given Adan floated up in his mind.
“Feminine bastard,” Lynne thought jealously before frowning. “Hah, no need to be annoyed at a woman for attracting looks from other women, I guess. . . .” Lynne still felt jealous, but he was no longer sure about what. He told himself that he still could not quite wrap his head around Adan being a woman.
“I’m not sure exactly why Emberon chose to kill the king yesterday.” Adan’s voice brought Lynne’s thoughts back to the present. “I noticed the man’s dislike for King Fenix the first time we meet him. At the time, I didn’t think much of it, but still kept an eye on his actions best I could. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t learn much, though. It wasn’t until I spoke with the Sun Tribe Elder that I understood more. According to their sources, Emberon has ties to the Valdmani royal family.”
“This is not a secret,” Lynne interrupted, “Emberon previously served a Duke in Valdmane but was exiled when he was young due to some scandal. King Fenix happened to save his life as he fled the country, and he had been very loyal to the king since then.”
Adan nodded. “But apparently he hasn’t cut all his ties with his home nation. The Sun Tribe recently intercepted a letter that the bodyguard had sent for home. In it, he spoke of how he was not getting any closer to finding what he needed and suspected only the Solmani king would be allowed to know about it. My guess is that, whatever he is looking for, he was finally desperate enough to act on his suspicion.”
“But why target my family, too?”
Adan looked at him. “He needs a scapegoat and, at the same time, he fears your potential.”
Lynne frowned. He could understand what Adan was hinting at. If Emberon had the goal of taking over the throne, it would be a lot more difficult after the king had married an ice bender. It was better to make sure that never happened.
“The assassination attempts on the way to Fire Isle were of his making?”
Adan shrugged. “Most likely.”
Lynne grew quiet. He thought back on his journey and all the attacks. The signs pointed towards a Voldmane plot to raise unrest between the Solmane and the Sun Tribe. If Emberon wanted to take over the throne, the more turmoil the country was in, the better; it would only make it easier for him to get rid of the king without suspicion falling on him. It was reasonable, but it didn’t explain everything.
“The priestesses who attacked me back at the church seemed to know I was a man. Was it Imma who . . .”
Lynne didn’t want to finish the sentence. Imma was, apart from his family, one of the few people who actually knew of his secret. Every single soul who knew about Lynne being male were people he and his family trusted wholeheartedly. The mere thought of Imma’s betrayal hurt. A lot.
Adan, however, dropped another bombshell.
“The king and Emberon already knew about your gender.”
“What?” Lynne instantly as up. “How?”
Adan laughed. “Well, according to the Sun Tribe Elder, it is true that males can’t be water benders and females can’t be fire benders.”
“Clearly he is wrong,” Lynne retorted.
“Is he?” Adan asked back, giving him a pinned stare.
Lynne frowned. Adan and himself were living proof that the Elder was wrong, unless . . .
“Only males can be ice benders and only females infernal benders?”
“Ping pong!” Adan made a funny noise and winked at him playfully. Lynne didn’t get the reference, but still understood that his guess was correct.
“So they knew all along!” Lynne felt anger well up inside him. He and his family had been scratching their heads bloody for decades to keep his gender hidden, but for what? Their secret was never even a secret to begin with!
“Don’t underestimate superstition, Lynne. While the king and his most trusted guard knows, the public still believes in the prophecy. In the Sun Tribe, only the Elder and head Keepers know this truth. I suspect the king chose to act as he did both to protect you and strengthen the country in the best way.”
“He could still have told my family!”
So much work and fear had gone in to preparing for Lynne’s escape from King Fenix and protecting his family at the same time. Had they known from the start, Lynne could have accepted the union with the king without worry. Of course, he would still not have been happy to be married to the guy, but for the sake of the country and his family he would do it nonetheless.
Lynne glanced over at Adan and felt a bit stuffy in his chest.
“Well, would have done it. . . .”
“Then what about Imma? She did still try to attack me.”
Adan shook her head. “I’m not sure. I would need to interrogate her properly.”
“You mean like with the girl in Prayer Village?”
The image of Adan bending down to give the redhead girl a deep kiss flashed by in Lynne’s mind, filling him with complicated emotions.
“Haha, yes, something like that,” Adan chuckled. “But that will have to wait.”
She looked over at Lynne and their eyes met. “Tell me, Princess, what do you want to do now?”
Instantly, Lynne felt heat rush too his head, but he quickly pushed it down. Instead, he thought of his current situation and couldn’t help but to sigh deeply.
“Ideally, I would like to save my father and brother right away and then expose Emberon, but it won’t be easy. . . .”
“Easy? Perhaps not, but definitely doable.”
Lynne looked at Adan’s wide and slightly lopsided smile and couldn’t help but believe her.
“Sleep for now, Lynne,” Adan reminded him. “We need to head out in a few hours and find Duke Kimba in the Hollow Forest.”
“He is in the forest?”
“Not just him.”
Adan kept smiling but said no more. Lynne could only give up and lie down in an attempt to get some sleep. His gaze fell on the bloody straps of fabric he had used to clean Adan’s wounds and eyes narrowed slightly. The blood on the fabric was not the dark red tone he had seen so many times while helping his father’s soldiers treat their wounds. Instead, it was lighter and had a clear orange tone to it.
Lynne held up his hand in front of his eyes and looked pensively at his fingers. Thinking back on the deep cut on Adan’s back that he had cleaned and stitched up earlier, Lynne also remembered the oddly dark muscle tissue underneath. At first he had thought that the muscle had been damaged somehow, causing it to shift in color, but on closer inspection that didn’t seem to be the case.
“You know secrets you shouldn’t know but are clueless on the simplest things. You look slightly different from any Sun Tribesmen I’ve met, both inside and out. Your skills and abilities are out of this world. . . .”
Lynne closed his eyes, the young woman appearing in his mind.
“Who are you really, Adan?”
The thought felt oddly familiar. As if he had thought about it many times before, but never quite taken it seriously. Clearly, he had doubted her before, but even now Lynne didn’t quite feel his concerns were warranted.
“And why do I trust you so much?