Although surprised, it seemed like Lynne was starting to truly accept that Adan was a thoroughbred hermit; he only blinked a few times at her confession of not seeing any Solmane while growing up before brushing off his surprise with a sigh.
“To think there still remains such secluded settlements in Solmani. . . . I’m impressed that your parents allowed you to journey for the awakening on your own. Aren’t they afraid something might happen to you?”
Adan smiled. She had never met the male who contributed to her genes – Amazonians never did – and her mother was more like a colleague to her than a parent. Adan and her sister had been raised by the Platoon, for the Platoon; family had no importance there. Or at least it shouldn’t have.
“I can take care of myself,” Adan replied.
“I noticed,” Lynne scoffed, “but you could still get lost or perhaps seduced by some voluptuous woman, who sees your impressive mark. In the capital, it’s not rare that young talents get snatched up before their awakening and tricked into signing life-long contracts.”
A light chuckle escaped Adan’s lips. Although she could appreciate the soft and delicate features of a well-formed woman, nothing compared to the chiseled chest of a man. . . . Also, any type of long-term commitment was out of the question; Adan had never seen the point of enjoying the same partner more than once, not that she would ever be allowed a permanent partner anyway.
“Women aren’t on my mind right now,” Adan emphasized, still chuckling softly.
“Right. . . .” Lynne snorted, but, seeing the humor in Adan’s eyes, he quickly frowned and pulled back a bit in his seat. He even went so far as to wrap himself protectively in his own arms. “You’re not . . . well. . . .”
“I’m not what?” The amusement didn’t leave Adan’s eyes, but other than that, she feigned ignorance perfectly.
“. . . Nothing.”
A slightly awkward silence descended on the carriage, and although Adan didn’t really mind, she decided to have mercy on the poor lad and change the subject.
“So, if the Book of Elements speaks ill of ice-bending males, what does it say on fire-bending females?” It was a question she wanted to know the answer to anyway.
Lynne blanked for a moment and then started laughing. “Hahaha, man you are hilarious! A female fire bender? That’s just not possible!”
“Oh?” Adan raised an eyebrow. “If there can be a male ice bender, how can there not be a female fire bender?”
The question caused Lynne to pause slightly in his laughter, but only for a moment. “Don’t be silly, vibkywj! There is just no way a woman could withstand the inner flames that come with being marked by fire. . . . She would burn to cinders long before she was born – taking her mother with her, no doubt.”
“Now that complicates things,” Adan commented to her A.I., ignoring Lynne’s condescending laughter.
“Sai agrees. It would be unwise to disclose your true gender now; this youth might understand due to his own circumstances, but humans tend to fear the unknown. Sai also estimates that learning more about the so-called awakening will be harder if your gender is made public.”
Sharing her A.I.’s opinion, Adan just silently watched as Lynne struggled to contain his laughter. Clutching his stomach, Lynne eventually got a hold of himself.
“Hehe, you might not be so bad to travel with after all,” he chuckled slightly before his expression quickly turned stern. “But you should be careful what you say in public – your ignorance won’t be so well appreciated by others, vibkywj.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Adan rolled her eyes.
After that, the ice between the two of them seemed to have broken, because Lynne was eager to talk to Adan about everything, from who taught her to fight to the general state of the nation. Adan even figured out that ‘vibkywj’, Lynne’s favorite nickname for her, meant something along the lines of ‘country bumpkin’.
Lynne claimed that his lectures were so that Adan would be of better use to him in the future, but Adan could tell that he was actually enjoying himself – especially every time he got the opportunity to mock Adan for all the things she didn’t know that supposedly were common knowledge. Perhaps the release of having someone else, besides his family, with whom he could speak openly was enough for him to let go a bit.
It was a great contrast to the frosty and spoiled princess attitude that he had portrayed outside. Luckily, none of those outside could hear him or his image would be ruined.
The sun had just begun to set when the carriage and the surrounding guards started to slow down. Going by what she heard, Adan could tell that they had arrived at a small village, no more than two kilometers wide, that was scarcely populated. A disproportionately large building was located at the center of it all and rhythmic chanting barely reached Adan’s sensitive ears.
“We have reached Prayer Village, Princess Hayden,” the guard commander informed from outside the carriage – her insincere respect obvious. “Princess will stay the night at the bybbojkilrow.”
“Bybbojkilrow?” Adan repeated, looking questioningly at Lynne who didn’t even sigh this time before explaining.
“You know, where all the Priestesses of the Moons live. . . .” he said, unknowingly adding the translation for the word ‘convent’ to Adan’s dictionary. “Women from all over the region travel here before their awakening so that they can get the priestesses’ blessings. I am no exception, but spending the night there might prove . . . problematic.” Lynne grimaced.
“Blessings? Does that mean your awakening won’t happen here?” Adan asked as the carriage finally slowed to a halt.
Lynne shook his head, his silky hair flowing over his shoulders like water. “Only the poorer families would choose to awaken their children here. Those that can afford it visit as many convents as possible on the way to the main church in the capital. Every blessing lessens the risk of something going wrong during the awakening and improves the awakened’s initial control.”
There was a knock on the carriage door and Duke Kimba greeted them with a friendly smile. He had been forced to ride since Lynne never allowed him back into the carriage, but he didn’t seem to have minded.
“Lady Lynne,” he greeted, clearly asking the former to exit the carriage.
Lynne gave Adan a pointed stare and she didn’t need more instructions before moving. Once outside of the carriage, Adan turned around and presented her hand to Lynne, offering support as the latter elegantly stepped out on the street.
Colonel Dallas didn’t wait long before signaling to her troops to step into formation around Lynne and the Duke. As they did as they were told, the woman gave Adan a reproving glare. Although Lynne complained, Adan decided to play nice and fall in behind the supposed princess. “I have great hearing,” Adan comforted softly as she stepped back to a more respectable distance. “Just whisper and I’ll hear you.”
Satisfied by Adan’s compliance but ignorant of what had been said, Dallas turned to Lynne and bowed slightly. “Follow me, Princess,” she instructed and started walking.
The carriage had parked on a small village square, just in front of a wide street which led all the way up to the huge convent at the center of the village. Considering the size of the village, the walk was actually quite substantial and Adan spent the time silently observing her surroundings. There definitely weren’t a lot of people living in the village, but all of them seemed to be found along this street; hundreds of people moved along it, some heading towards the convent, others stopping at smaller shops along the way. Most of them were pale-skinned females and there wasn’t a horse or carriage in sight, so everyone walked.
Not a single person Adan saw had skin similar to hers or Duke Kimba’s and she could feel how people stopped and stared as they saw her and the Duke pass. Adan wasn’t very surprised by this behavior – who isn’t curious about exotic things? – but what did strike her as odd was that the duke himself kept steeling glances at her whenever he thought no one was paying attention.
“Listen, bumpkin, I need to partake in the blessing, but after it is done you will have to help me leave the convent – if I sleep there, they will want me to bathe with them in the morning, naked. . . .” Lynne suddenly whispered as they were perhaps a hundred meters away from the convent. He hadn’t looked back, but naturally Adan could hear him anyway.
She snorted softly, privately amused by the fact she had met a man that wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to skinny dip with a house full of young women, but she understood his reasoning. Unable to reply, Adan simply pretended that she hadn’t heard anything.
Soon, Lynne’s party reached the gates to the convent. Contrary to the other buildings in the village, this one was made out of stone and though the design was simple – crude almost – there was a network of groves covering its surface. This in itself wouldn’t be impressive, if not for the small streams of water that flowed through them, completely ignoring things like gravity and surface tension.
This close, the chants Adan had heard earlier were louder and more melodious, but she still couldn’t make any sense of what they were saying. The only thing that was certain was that at least fifty females were chanting together from within the convent. In front of her, Adan noticed that Lynne’s muscles had tensed up, as if they were fighting against an invisible force that tugged at him.
“Are you alright?” Adan asked, taking a step forward, but a sharp voice suddenly barked at her.
“Step back, brute!”
Adan glanced over Lynne’s shoulder and saw an impressively tall woman storming towards them, a stream of water shooting at Adan like a spear from the woman’s raised hand.
On instinct Adan side-stepped the incoming attack with ease and calmly assessed the clearly fuming woman. She was neither young nor old – perhaps around thirty – but her pale blonde hair was arranged in a tight knot behind her head which made her look older than she likely was. She wore the same type of clothes as Adan did, only the fabric was silkier and both the wrapped top and the wide pants were as white as snow.
“Don’t you know not to touch a woman before a blessing!? Really, Colonel Dallas, I would have expected you to have better control over your men!”
“Forgive me, Mother Amaris,” Dallas replied respectfully, not pointing out that Adan technically wasn’t one of hers.
The reverend mother snorted and, under Adan’s curious gaze, produced another stream of water, seemingly out of nowhere. The water coiled itself into a sphere that then slowly pushed against Lynne’s chest. The moment it made contact, a thin layer of frost spread over its surface, causing Mother Amaris to wince slightly. Lynne on the other hand seemed to grow more relaxed, his muscles less tense.
“Blessed be the Moons, she truly is touched by ice. . . .” the priestess breathed. “Come my child, let the elements guide you.” With a wave of her hand, Lynne stepped forward, seemingly pulled by the sphere at his chest. Adan moved to follow, but this time Colonel Dallas griped her wrist firmly, stopping her from advancing.
“No men allowed,” she said curtly before giving Duke Kimba a meaningful look. The latter took the hint and moved to Adan’s side, placing his hand on her shoulder. There was no force behind it, but only when the hand was in place did Colonel Dallas let go of Adan’s wrist. She and the other female guards then promptly followed Lynne and Mother Amaris into the convent.
“Don’t worry, Lady Lynne is in good hands,” Duke Kimba assured, patting Adan on the shoulder.
“Why did she act so strange?”
“Hmm?” The Duke seemed more focused on Adan’s shoulder than on what she was saying, but he quickly snapped out of it and retrieved his hand hurriedly. “Ah, yes . . . well, the chanting that the Houses of the Elements affects the water or fire that is nearby. Before one’s awakening, it also affects the dormant elements within the body. The reverend mother’s water sphere protects Lady Lynne from the influence until the blessing is complete.” Duke Kimba smiled at Adan, apparently not surprised by the need to explain what was going on to her. “We will be able to speak with Lady Lynne once their ritual is done; shall we get something to eat while we wait?”
He motioned down one of the side streets that led away from the convent. The gesture seemed oddly respectful to Adan, but since she wasn’t sure of all the customs of this place yet, she just went with the flow and started walking.
“You may spend the evening as you wish,” Duke Kimba instructed the remaining male guards before hurrying to catch up to Adan. However, even as he walked next to her, the Duke was careful to always stay half a step behind her. The difference was so subtle that most people wouldn’t even notice it, but it was nonetheless there.
For a while, the two of them walked in silence, making their way down streets that got narrower and less well-kept with every turn. There were fewer people here, but their appearance was more varied, including both men and people with darker skin tones. Oddly enough, the darker the skin tone, the more surprised they were to see Adan.
“Something isn’t quite right here. . . .” Adan mused to her A.I. just as the Duke slowed to a halt.
“We are here,” he said, indicating to a small house nearby.
It looked run-down and rather inconspicuous from the outside but, by scent and sound alone, Adan knew it was a diner of some sort, although not a very well visited one; only two people were inside at the moment.
With a lopsided smile touching on her lips, Adan entered the house. She was still busy inspecting the interior – neat but old and worn – when Duke Kimba quickly closed the door behind them. With a bang, he sunk down on one knee, his head lowered in utter respect.
“Ancient One, this lowly one has been rude! Please punish me for my insolence!”