For a while, Adan and Lynne silently rocked back and forth in the carriage that made its way down the uneven forest road. Adan remained silent, because it looked like Lynne was deciding how much he should tell her, or perhaps more accurately, how little she knew.
The longer Lynne considered where to start, the less irritation was present in his eyes. He eventually shook his head.
“If your parents are unmarked, I suppose that means you don’t really know anything about . . . well, anything, so I’ll start from the beginning. For the people of Solmani, every child is born element marked – women by water, men by fire. There basically is no exception to this, contrary to your people, where children are often unmarked and only the men can bear the mark.
“Naturally, there are degrees of how strong a marking is; when born, everyone’s mark has the same size and shape, but as one grows older some marks intensify, possibly even crystallize. For us it’s fairly rare, although not for your people – don’t interrupt!” Lynne snapped as Adan was about to ask a question.
Chuckling, Adan said nothing.
“Good. Now, while I said there is no exception to being touched by either fire or water, that is not entirely true – there is one other possibility. Legend speaks of women who have been touched by something much more powerful than water; ice.”
Lynne tapped his crystal.
“You’re joking!” Adan exclaimed, feigning shock and amazement.
“I am not. Legend has it that the ulcujawo are incomparably strong; capable of freezing over entire battlefields with but a thought.”
Now this caused Adan to genuinely raise an eyebrow in surprise. Judging by Lynne’s tone, he had no doubt that the legends were true. Such abilities would really be impressive, even by Adan’s standards, and it would also be entirely unheard of in the universe, as far as she knew.
“Needless to say,” Lynne continued, sounding a bit despondent, “my future skills are highly sought after by everyone, the king included. Unfortunately, while the tales of female ulcujawo are impressive beyond belief, there is also another legend connected to the ulcujawo. Perhaps, twidorlua is a better word than legend actually. . .”
Lynne steeled himself, clearly coming to the important part of his story and suddenly hesitating if he should say anything at all. Adan on the other hand was too busy consulting with her A.I. about the supposed prowess of these ulcujawo – ‘ice bender’ most likely – to bother egging him on. When Lynne finally spoke again, his voice was tense and dramatic.
“. . . A man was born with icy heart, and by his hand the world was torn apart.”
[Hidden weapon detected – threat level negligible]
The warning message flashed by Adan’s eyes as Lynne finished his sentence, a glowing ring outlining a blade that was hidden from view, tightly clenched a hand hidden within the fabric of his clothes. Adan met Lynne’s tense stare and couldn’t help but frown.
“Is that it?” she asked, suppressing a chuckle.
“What do you mean, is that it!? That line is from the Book of Elements; the Priests of the Sun and the Priestesses of the Moons see it as law! Tales of ice-marked males who come to destroy the world are used to scare children into submission!” Lynne was hissing harshly, doing his best not to break out in angry shouting. “Can you at least guess what would happen to my family and me if anyone learned I’m male? Boys born with even the slightest discoloration in their fire mark are usually imprisoned or even killed, just to be safe – their parents, too. I’m a full-fledged ice bender!”
“So your parents raised you as a woman, keeping you safe, but now you’ve become . . .” Adan paused, not knowing the word for ‘betrothed; “you will have to marry one of the very people who want you dead simply because female ice benders are so precious? Tricky situation,” Adan mused, nodding in understanding. “I also suppose simply running away or opposing to the marriage is out of the question. . . . It would be both suspicious and a crime, right?”
Lynne stared at her with wide eyes, clearly not expecting the straightforward and unbiased response he was given to the secret he had been keeping his entire life. Adan noticed the complex emotions stirring within the young man and gave him a lopsided smile.
“A man’s abilities doesn’t define him; what he chooses to do with them does. Some of us are simply . . . less free in our choices.”
“. . .”
Both Lynne and Adan’s A.I. considered her words, but while Lynne missed the underlying meaning, the A.I. did not.
“Adan. . .” it started, but Adan interrupted the female voice in her head before it could say more.
“It’s fine, Sai,” she assured, shrugging slightly.
In front of her, Lynne slowly released the grip on his hidden blade, his body relaxing. The look he gave Adan was no longer one of tensed frustration, but rather relief – although he did his best to hide it with a frown.
This time Adan actually laughed. “Decided you won’t kill me, after all?”
“I wasn’t g-. . .” Adan’s knowing smile caused Lynne to stop his excuse. “I couldn’t take any chances.”
“Really? If this ice bender thing truly is such a big deal, I’m surprised you didn’t run me through with that blade of yours while I was busy fighting off your supposed kidnappers.”
Lynne opened his mouth to refute again, but he stopped himself. Fiddling with the golden velvet curtains covering the carriage’s only window, his eyes grew a bit distant. “You seemed . . . trustworthy,” he said after a while.
Adan raised an eyebrow.
“Only four people alive know the truth about me, but while I trust them with my life, I can still feel their fear of me.”
He paused and then suddenly snorted and faced Adan, a breathtaking yet cocky smile on his handsome face. “I find your ignorance refreshing, vibkywj.”
Adan blinked a few times and then broke out laughing. Lynne joined her, his laughter deeper and more alluring than Adan’s more melodious canter.
Lynne’s amusement quickly faded, though, and he pulled out his dagger in full view, pointing it at Adan with a serious look. “That does, however, not mean that I forgive you, nor that I won’t kill you without hesitation if I must. You will use your no doubt impressive fire bender skills to help me escape before the wedding, vibkywj, or I’ll make sure to take you down with me.”
Adan suppressed her laughter, replacing it with a calm smile that didn’t falter under such pointless threats, but she made no comment on the folly behind his vow. Instead she shook her head slowly. “I’m afraid I have to disappoint you, miss Lynne, I have none of these fire bending skills you talk about.”
“Of course you don’t,” Lynne half laughed, half sighed. “You have yet to be awakened, just like me. How could I possibly even pretend to be kidnapped otherwise. . . ?”
“Awakened?” Adan asked, playing the ignorant card to its fullest.
“Seriously, ywno’blk, even if your parents are unmarked, they must have told you something about fire benders; I thought story telling was a big thing among your people. . . Listen, as long as a mark is still developing, the element within cannot be controlled. Only once the growth has stabilized is it safe for a priest or priestess to open the path to one’s element core. This is the awakening,” Lynne explained, being oddly thorough considering the annoyed tone of his voice.
“The stronger your mark is, the older will you be when it’s time for the awakening. Fortunately, sex and other physical interactions between the marked are strictly forbidden until one is awakened, sparing me from marriage so far. I’m twenty-three this year, which is considered old for an awakening – how old are you?”
Adan didn’t reply right away. In Federation terms, she was only 1.2 years of age, but how that translated to actual years on different planets was dependent on that planet’s orbit.
“Considering the observed movement of this solar system’s central star, as well as this planet’s gravitation and magnetic field, Sai estimates your age to be roughly 19.6 years.”
“Soon twenty,” Adan summarized, causing Lynne’s eyes to widen.
“And your mark is that large!? Is it stable?”
“Sai has detected no growth of the crystallized Materia X since its fusion with your sternum,” the A.I. informed again.
Adan shrugged noncommittally.
“Ho’ckaw, ywno’blk, you’re sick!”
Adan frowned. “Neither am I sick, nor nameless,” she pointed out, growing tired of the constant nicknames her translating program couldn’t keep up with. “Call me Adan or nothing at all! What is a ywno’blk anyway?” she asked, realizing that the question would likely permanently put her in the stupid-section; Lynne’s expression told her she was right.
“How can you not even know the name of your own people?” he asked back, disbelieving, but after thinking about it for a while he actually shrugged it off. “Then again, your kind usually don’t refer to yourselves as ywno’blk . . . . sun people, was it?” Lynne mused more to himself than to Adan. He grunted. “Listen, ywno’blk is my nation’s name for people like you; people from the old clans that roamed this land before the current king’s forefathers arrived nearly two hundred years ago, bringing my people to live here and building cities and roads. Since the ywno’blk were the old residents of this place, it’s a rather fitting name, I think; the original people, the ancient ones.”
Understanding dawned on Adan. Cases where one race or culture was pushed aside by an other, stronger, one were as numerous as the stars in the universe. Most likely, these ywno’blk – the Ancient Ones – were simply a branch of this planet’s humans, with minor to no genetic differences. However, cultural development or their lower tendency to give birth to so-called element marked children might have made them vulnerable to the surrounding forces, leading to them losing their land.
This might explain Duke Kimba’s strained smiles towards his future queen. Usually, a weaker culture’s fall under a stronger one was a bloody affair. Perhaps the Duke’s title was also more of a formality, helping to mediate between the past and present owners of this land.
“So what is your plan?” Adan asked, deciding to change the subject.
The question seemed like a bucket of cold water over Lynne’s head, instantly sobering him up. “There isn’t much we can do, not before I’m awakened at least. Hopefully, you can be awakened too and you can help me stage another kidnapping.”
He said it with confidence, but Adan could hear his hurried heartbeat that gave away his true concern.
“And if I can’t?” Adan pushed.
Lynne looked out the window solemnly, not answering.
“Better disgraced than dead. . . .” he muttered after a while, but so quietly that Adan assumed he didn’t want her to hear him.
She pretended that she hadn’t heard anything and instead remained silent. In her mind she conferred with her A.I. “What do you think, Sai? Should I follow this prince-slash-princess to their capital and help him escape his fate?” The dramatic flair to her words was even more apparent when she communicated directly with her mind.
“It’s against regulation,” the A.I. replied as matter-of-factly as always, but then added: “However, Sai is concerned about this fire and ice manipulation; if it is really possible to spur this ability from the Materia X in your chest, the Federation would prioritize the investigation into the matter.”
A crooked smile formed on Adan’s lips. Her A.I. really was different from her sister’s, constantly helping her find loopholes in the very rules it should be making sure Adan followed. It might complain about it, but Adan had long since learned that ‘Sai’ was even more curious about the ways of the universe than she was.
“How likely do you think it is that I can be awakened into a fire bender?”
“At first, Sai calculated it as practically impossible. However, after hearing Mr. Lynne’s explanation, Sai made another scan of your body and must admit that the probability of it working is no longer negligible.”
“Really?” Adan couldn’t help but feel a bit excited by the notion of being able to directly control fire, even with the extra examinations she would have to live through if she ever made it back home. “What changed?”
A three-dimensional hologram appeared in front of Adan’s eyes. It was a cluster of her blood cells – two-thirds of them were dark red while the rest were vibrantly yellow. Adan had seen these before, but there was a different luster to them now. The image zoomed in on two of the cells, their inner makings becoming large enough for her to see the individual molecules that built them up. Most of what Adan saw was what she expected – iron and oxygen in her ‘human’ blood cells, and primarily sulfur and gold in her BioGen blood cells – but one thing had changed. Looking carefully, Adan noticed a faint coppery membrane that enclosed each molecular compound, giving them a warm glow.
“This. . . !?” Adan exclaimed, just barely stopping herself from speaking out loud. She recognized that membrane; it was the same thing that had been present in the gene samples Adan had collected earlier.
“Sai didn’t notice it at first, but now, after 703 circulations, the changes in your blood have become more apparent. Sai predicts that it, if it continues to change at the current pase, it will take another 842 circulations for your blood to have a higher concentration of this membrane than any of the people we tested earlier. The change has yet to spread to other cells in your body, but it is only a matter of time.”
“Is it harmful?”
“Sai has found no such indications. However, Sai’s nanobots are incapable of interacting directly with the membrane, so no closer investigation has been possible.”
“Could you stop staring? It’s unnerving.” Lynne’s sudden voice caused Adan snap out of her wonder at the changes within her. Refocusing her gaze, Adan realized that, from Lynne’s point of view, she really had been staring at him.
“Sorry,” she muttered and turned her gaze away.
“For you to stare at a guy like that . . . were there really no Solmane where you grew up?”
Adan chuckled and gave her first honest “no” since she came to this planet.