Adan frowned, but before she could decide how to deal with the kneeling man, a loud crash rang out behind them. Adan glanced over her shoulder at the young girl who had just entered through the kitchen door; several broken plates lay at her feet and she stared at Adan with wide-eyed shock and wonder.
“Sera!” the Duke hissed, and the young girl snapped out of her daze. Quickly, she too kneeled down, only she took it one step further than Kimba and kowtowed completely.
The girl was even about to slam her head into floor – and the broken pieces of porcelain that covered it – but Adan acted before she had the chance to complete the motion. With a burst of speed, Adan moved to the girl’s side, gently blocking the descending head with her hand.
“There is no need for that,” Adan said, smiling a bit awkwardly. The girl named Sera looked up at her and instantly blushed, quickly lowering her gaze again. Adan sighed and turned to face the still kneeling duke. “Duke Kimba, I think you are mistaken about my identity. . . . Please, stand up.”
“I cannot,” the man replied resolutely; “not until you have punished me for my insolence, Ancient One.”
“Then your punishment is to never kneel before me again,” Adan replied on a whim. She had not expected it to actually work, but, to her surprise, the Duke only hesitated for a moment before getting to his feet. There was even a touch of depression in his eyes, as if what Adan had asked for truly was a punishment.
Although Adan was perplexed by Kimba’s expression, she still felt relieved that he was at least standing. Adan had never liked kneeling – it cheapened her, somehow – and she surely didn’t want to be knelt to.
“Now then,” Adan said, breathing out strongly. “Would you please explain who it is you think I am? Also, why do you keep calling me ‘Ancient One’? I thought that was the Solmane word for us.”
Duke Kimba’s body visibly shook and he looked at Adan with intense eyes. “You don’t know. . . .” he breathed after a while, as if he had realized something obvious and, coming to this conclusion, the Duke became a man of action.
“Sera,” he commanded in a serious tone; “prepare the upstairs room for us and tell your mother to bring some tribe talismans.”
The young girl scurried to her feet and rushed out of the room without daring even a glance towards Adan.
“This way, please, Ancient Adan,” Kimba continued; “we have much to talk about.”
He gestured towards the only stairway in the room and Adan had no reason to refuse him. Once upstairs, Duke Kimba led her to a small room that faced away from the deserted road they had arrived by. Outside the window was instead a miniature garden that was completely overcast by a single, enormous tree; its bright, green leaves were the size of Adan’s hands, its branches as thick as her thieghs. Some of the leafy branches were even forcing their way into the room, giving it a very rustic and wild feeling.
There was no furniture in the room, apart from a thick, yet very worn-out mat that covered most of the floor, as well a couple of pillows, all in vibrant red and yellow tones.
Understanding the Duke’s indications, Adan took a seat on one of the pillows, crossing her legs in front of her. Kimba’s black eyes watched her closely before he too and sat down on a pillow, placing himself across from Adan.
Just as he was about to speak, there was a nervous knock on the door.
“I-I brought some food. . . .”
Sera’s voice was unsteady as she called out from the corridor and she only entered after the Duke had given her permission. Like a shy mouse, the young girl hurried into the room, placed a surprisingly shiny tray, filled with fruits, on the carpet and then fled as quick as her legs could carry her. One might think that she was afraid of her new guest, but Adan’s eyes saw how the girl’s ears had grown significantly warmer; her skin tone hid it rather well, but Sera was definitely blushing.
“You have gained an admirer. . . .” Adan’s A.I. pointed out, matter-of-factually.
Adan chuckled softly at the comment but focused her attention on the man sitting across from her. “Well?” she asked, wishing for him to clear whatever misunderstanding that had happened between them.
The Duke remained silent for a while longer before finally answering Adan’s question with one of his own.
“How much do you know about the people of the Sun Tribes – or Ancient Ones, as the Solmani inacuratly call us?” he asked. “No need to be secretive with me, Master Adan; I know your background is more complicated than you told the ice princess.”
Adan raised a surprised eyebrow. Considering the fact that the Duke had covered for her earlier, Kimba’s statement wasn’t that shocking, but she hadn’t expected him to be so straightforward.
“Not much,” Adan admitted and simply summarized what Lynne had told her earlier; “the Sun Tribes lived on these lands before the current king’s ancestors suddenly came and formed the nation of Solmani. They call us Ancient Ones because we were here first and, unlike the Solmane, only male members of the Sun Tribes are marked by an element.”
The Duke nodded slowly, taking in Adan’s words.
“Yes,” he agreed; “that is the story as most Solmane know it, but it is not the entire truth. The Sun Tribes indeed lived on these lands long before the first Solmane King claimed it for himself, but his arrival was far from sudden. His family had been eying our land for generations, but, even with his own people being prone to both elements, the Sun Tribes were not to be trifled with.”
“Really? It feels like it should be a one sided battle. . . . ”
“Far from it, and the reason was the Ancient Ones.”
“But. . . .” Adan frowned and Kimba smiled softly at her apparent confusion.
“Contrary to popular belief, the Ancient Ones is not a title entirely unrelated to the Sun Tribes. It does, however, not refer to our people as a whole, but to our leaders,” Kimba’s eyes glistened with admiration as he stared his explanation.
“For as long as our people have been speaking history, the Ancient Ones have been in our tales. Much like the fabled ice princesses of the Solmane people, the Ancient Ones wielded flames far stronger than that of normal fire marked. With their power, they could easily melt entire mountains into seas of fire!”
Adan’s eyes narrowed slightly, finding the whole thing a bit far-fetched, but continued to listen in silence.
“The Solmane ice benders are legendary and rare existences among their people, but every generation of the Ancient Ones possessed the unique ability to control the infernal flames. As such, there were always at least three Ancient Ones with their abilities awakened that could lead and safeguard the Sun Tribes. Needless to say, the Solmane King didn’t stand a chance.”
“Then how come they won in the end?” she asked.
Lord Kimba sighed, his eyes downcast; he didn’t really seem willing to explain this part.
“Because they left.”
Adan turned towards the door, looking at the old woman who had answered the question instead of the Duke. Just like Kimba, the woman’s skin was very dark – almost black – but grey rather than black hair framed her wrinkled face. Her clothes were just as colorful as the fiery cushions in the room and several wooden trinkets clinked against each other as she walked into the room with a bad limp. Duke Kimba quickly got to his feet and helped the old woman to the pillow he had been sitting on.
“She is blind,” Adan’s A.I. informed her and looking closely at the woman’s eyes, Adan clearly saw the grey sheen that covered her irises.
“Ancient Adan, meet Ena, a Keeper of the Spoken Flames,” Duke Kimba introduced.
“It’s an honor,” said Adan respectfully. She had no idea what a ‘Keeper of the Spoken Flames’ was but, judging by how the Duke treated her, it couldn’t be someone simple.
“No child, the honor is mine.” The woman smiled a toothless smile. “Come, let me see you.”
She stretched out her hands and Adan was kind enough to lean forward until those hands touched her face. Despite being wrinkled and bony, Ena’s touch was soft and surprisingly warm. With practiced motions, the woman felt Adan’s brow, nose, cheekbones and jaw in succession. When she reached Adan’s ears Ena’s otherwise stable hands faltered slightly and she breathed in sharply.
“So it’s true,” Ena practically whispered as she leaned back from Adan. “You honor us with your presence, Ancient One.”
Instinctively, Adan raised her hands, feeling her own ears. They were slightly larger than normal human ears and pointer. Most would perhaps not even notice it though, since her three centimeter long hair covered them fairly well, but it would seem Kimba had an eye for details.
Scratching her head, Adan was unsure of what to say. “Um, I think the two of you are mistaken . . . I am not one of your Ancients.”
“Poptosh!” objected the old woman, sounding much like the children who had played around Adan’s feet in the first village. “Kimba, what color is Ancient Adan’s hair?”
“What color is Ancient Adan’s skin?”
“Brown, with a touch of gold.”
“And Ancient Adan’s mark, what color is that?”
“Red, with a golden core.”
“It’s not . . .” Adan started objecting, but Kimba brushed off the fruits from the silvery tray that Sera had brought in earlier. He lifted it up to give Adan a better view of the crystal embedded in her chest and there was indeed a shimmer of gold hidden in its center.
“See?” the blind Ena asked, as if it was Adan who had problems with her eyes. “Only the Ancient Ones have all those features, especially those ears of yours. Tell me, Ancient Adan, is not your blood more orange than red when you bleed?”
Adan blinked. At least in her old universe, the only humans with orange blood were the women of the Amazon Platoon and, apart from the crystallized mark, every other aspect of her appearance could be attributed to them as well. At least to the ninth and eighth generations Adan belonged to.
“. . . Sai knows of no other missing Amazonians. Unless this dimension’s time-line is non-linear to the original one, Sai has to assume that it is indeed a coincidence.”
“Um, didn’t you say the Ancient Ones left?” Adan asked out loud to the Duke and Keeper. She was already bending on hundreds of regulations in her interactions with Lynne and becoming a lost nations holy symbol would not help. “How could I be one of them when I’ve been raised not that far from here?”
Ena laughed softly while Kimba gave her a knowing look. “Honored Ancient, there is no such thing as a settlement of the Sun Tribes that me or Ena don’t know of. Especially none with a child who bears so close a resemblance to our legendary leaders.”
“Besides, the Ancient Ones were not from here,” the old Keeper added, drawing a neat circle on the floor with her wrinkled hand; “but from there.” She raised a bony finger, pointing towards the ceiling.
Adan’s eyes widened, immediately understanding what Ena was saying. The Ancient Ones had indeed been like Adan; not from this world.
“. . . What is your suggestion?” Adan asked her A.I. privately. As far as she knew, there was no real connection between the Ancient Ones and her, but at the same time, if those people had a means of travelling to and from the planet, it was definitely important for Adan to learn more. it might be her key to returning home, after all.
“Sai has observed that these people are finding your ignorance of the Ancient Ones to be according to reason. Therfore, Sai would advice that you to use this to your benefit.”
Agreeing, Adan made a show of sighing and slumped down a bit deeper on her pillow. She gave Kimba and Keeper Ena a defeated look. “I admit that there are . . . certain similarities between myself and the Ancient Ones, but I don’t know that I am one of them. Heck, I don’t even know if I will be able to awaken any fire bending abilities whatsoever!”
“Oh, you will,” Ena insisted calmly. “I can already feel it.”
“Feel it?” Adan frowned.
“Your affinity for the Flames,” the Duke explained, his eyes eager. “Even without your core opened, your body’s readiness for it resonates with all who are touched by fire.”
Adan looked at the old woman in front of her and, as if Ena could feel Adan’s gaze, she laughed. “All from the Sun Tribes are touched by fire – male and female, alike – but only the Ancient Ones have a strong enough affinity for the Flames to allow even us un-marked to feel it.”
Not explaining further, Ena fiddled with one of the trinkets around her neck and soon it lay in her hand. She indicated for Adan to take it.
“That is a Tribal marking, indicating that you belong to my tribe and have yet to undergo your awakening. Take it – you will have trouble in the capital without it.”
Adan looked at the small wooden sculpture she had received. It looked like a flaming bird, its wide-spread wings ending in two leather stings that allowed the wearer to tie it around their neck. Just like Ena’s touch, the wooden bird felt oddly warm to the touch, but as far as Adan’s eyes could tell, its temperature should be normal.
“Interesting,” the slightly intrigued voice of Adan’s A.I. rang out in her mind. “The sculpture is reacting with the transparent membrane find in your blood cells, causing the sensation of heat. . . . Perhaps there is something within the sculpture.”
“You feel it, don’t you?” Duke Kimba asked when he noticed Adan’s intense stare at the talisman. “The talisman reacts with your inner flames. Put it on – it will help you with the awakening when the time comes.”
Adan was truly fascinated by the little wooden bird, but she still resisted the urge to see what would happen if she hung it around her neck. She would not put it on until she knew exactly what it symbolized.
“I am grateful for this, but . . . what is it you want from me in return?” Adan asked. “I doubt you brought me here simply to talk about the past.”
“. . . .”
Duke Kimba opened his mouth, clearly about to lie, but a stern look from Ena seemed to change his mind. “Ah, right, the Tribe’s honesty.” Kimba’s round stomach bobbed up and down as he laughed self-mockingly. “I guess I’ve been at court a bit too long. . . .”
“To be honest, before the Ancient Ones left, they negotiated a peace treaty with the Solmane King. They told the King that they would be willing to back down as rulers of the Sun Tribes and allow Solmani to be formed as long as the people of the Sun Tribes were given the same rights as the Solmane and that any land the King wanted to use had to be bought from the Tribes.
“At the time, there had been five Ancient Ones alive, each controlling one of the major Tribes so, naturally, the King happily agreed. The Ancients left and the Solmane came.” Kimba sighed. “Initially, the treaty was strictly upheld – after all, the King didn’t know where the Sun Tribe leaders had gone nor if they would return – but with time . . .”
The Duke didn’t have to finish his sentence for Adan to be able to guess what had happened. The Solmane had most likely forgotten about the true Ancient Ones and their King no longer feared them. The incitement to uphold the treaty was fading.
Adan shook her head. “So? What do you want me to do about it? Even if I am what you believe I am, there is only one of me and the Solmane King stands to marry an ice bender – we cancel each other out in strength, no?”
“True, but we don’t expect you to fight for us. However, if someone able to control the infernal flames once more appears among our Tribes, it would no doubt remind the Solmane King of the importance of the treaty.”
‘Or of the hidden danger lurking in the potential of the Tribe members,’ thought Adan, but she didn’t correct Kimba’s statement. Instead she sighed. “Duke Kimba, Keeper Ena, I understand your struggle, but, in the spirit of honesty, my main concern right now is finding a way to return home.”
“By infernal flame, all bonds may shatter, linking this world with the latter.”
“Huh?” Ena’s sudden and cryptic sentence left Adan confused.
“Words from the Spoken Flame,” Duke Kimba explained. “I’m afraid that the only way for you to return home is to embrace who you truly are. The question is: will you let the Sun Tribes help you?”