The first thing Adan did after opening his eyes was check his surroundings for any surprises. He had endured enough of those in the past two days to last him a lifetime. His quick visual inspection revealed nothing unusual, but he had had only the briefest of moments to inspect his room yesterday before his exhaustion had claimed him. He took little comfort in the fact that he realistically could not expect himself to spot anything but the most egregiously out of place items.
It had taken two days to reach the Kensai encampment in the blizzard, but it had taken Adan less than an hour to decide he would have preferred to continue alone. It started innocently enough, or so it seemed. The fur cloak their newly-acquired Kensai escort had shared with him was too small. It had taken less than fifty paces in his too-tight snowshoes to realize that Gwyn's cloak was far too big for her. His eyes met the blue eyes of the lavender-haired cause of his trouble.
Sumire, the leader of the war band Adan and his companions had bested and daughter of the Kensai shousa, seemed to be waiting for his reaction. Adan did nothing and said nothing, marching on in the snow, his cloak flowing freely about him in the wind. The chill bit into his flesh, but at the time, he had thought it worthwhile to demonstrate how utterly unaffected he was by her weak attempt at retaliation.
Perhaps, had he conceded that little bit of ground, the rest of the trip would have been less...just less. He had no idea how she did it, but the purple-haired minx created an impromptu series of traps, tricks, and pranks using nothing more than snow and ice that all succeeded in scoring their designated target: him.
And she was responsible: every time he fell into one of the traps or pranks, Sumire was right there, making sure he saw her before she went on ahead in what would have seemed innocence to the untrained eye. To a product of a royal court, it was so insincere it practically screamed guilt.
Adan looked out from under the warm layers of his fur blankets, studying his room. The Kensai encampment was a sophisticated warren of caves that were substantially warmer than the icy wastes of Frigidia. Judging from the climb up the mountain and the narrow entrance, it was eminently defensible; even should invaders break through, the confusing twists and turns within would allow the defenders to defeat the enemy in detail.
The room itself was simple. The pile of warm furs he had slept on was the bed, while a few shelves on the opposite end of the room held some books and other, more unfamiliar items. Highly-stylized drawings on the walls depicted scenes of battle and of the hunt. A couple of thick rugs and cushions on the floor that likely doubled for seats. Simple, utilitarian, without waste or frivolity.
Adan sat up as he continued to survey his surroundings. There wasn't much privacy from what he could tell. His room was separated from the corridor by a blanket that covered the entrance. Privacy here was more a state of mind than a reality.
A rustling sound at the entrance turned his head. He caught a glimpse of a pair of young girls, prepubescent at their oldest, peeking into his room. When they realized he was aware of their presence, they darted out of sight. Some things were the same everywhere. It was a strangely comforting thought.
A long silence ensued, interrupted only by the rustle of his doorway as the girls peeked in, saw he was still watching, then darted out of sight again. Adan smiled as he remembered his twin had done much the same when they were children. She still did it, though she would vociferously deny it if accused. "You can enter, if you like."
The area around his doorway palpably froze. Idly, Adan wondered how long it would take them to screw up their courage.
It was not a long wait. The two girls entered, their steps a bit abashed, and sat on the rugs, their heads down, their eyes darting quick peeks at his face. Rather like children caught doing something they were not supposed to be doing. Adan openly studied them. They were tall for their ages, with lean physiques that hinted at strong training regimens for ones so young. Their hair was done up in twintails, the hair gathered on either side of their heads by simple clips. Their maroon clothes appeared warm and comfortable, though not loose; no benefit in combat if your own clothes tripped you up. One of them had bright green hair, while the other's tresses wore an all too-familiar shade of lavender.
They fidgeted under his gaze. At length, the green haired one finally burst out, "The rumors are really true."
Adan eyed Green idly. "What rumors?"
Green traded a long look with Lavender. Before either of them could get up and escape, he caught both of their gazes. Command entered his eyes and his voice. "Tell me the rumor."
"That you're the most beautiful man in all of Frigidia," Lavender muttered.
He burst out laughing. It was the absolute last thing he expected, and he had no defenses against such a silly statement. It was absurd to call him "beautiful." His mother and sister certainly merited such a word, but Adan thought himself no more than fair when it came to looks. When he finally recovered, he smiled at the two girls so they understood he was not laughing at them. Strangely, the pair seemed to be holding their breath after he smiled at them.
Before he could ask them about it, a loud grumbling sound came from a stomach. Not his. Lavender turned pink as Green stared at her. "Are you hungry?" Lavender asked, embarrassed.
Lavender shot up to her feet so quickly that Adan instinctively tensed for battle, but she only paused to grab Green's arm and run off. Shaking his head, Adan doffed his blankets and inspected the clothes set aside for him. They were sturdy, comfortable clothes that seemed likely to fit him and to keep him warm in the chill of Frigidia. The only problem was that they were white.
It was irrational, but Adan thoroughly disliked the color white. That he wore it at all was his way of showing his respect for his aunt, the great Laya of legend. Similarly, he wore black to honor Orakio, his ancestor from a thousand years ago, and Laya's great enemy.
Laya of white and red, Orakio of black and gold. In the thousand years since his two kin had warred against each other, their signet colors had taken on different meanings to their followers. White was the color of mourning for Orakians, while black served that purpose for Layans. Orakians never wore red, while Layans similarly avoided gold. It was a strange taboo, its origins lost to history.
He smiled as he shrugged into the thick, warm clothes the Kensai had given him. His mother and his sister always wore red, as it was the color of the Laya. It gave the Orakian nobles apoplexy at every court function, something he personally thought the majority of them deserved. Unlike his subjects, however, Adan liked women in red. It was his favorite color. He absentmindedly wondered how Kara would look in red.
Even as he donned the white cloak that bore Orakio's sunburst, someone cleared their throat at his doorway. "Enter."
The two girls entered, their hands carrying trays of food sufficient for three people. Adan supposed they wanted to eat with him, and saw no reason to object. He sat cross-legged on one of the rugs. The two girls took rugs opposite him and began to eat. Breakfast consisted of various grasses, tubers, roots, stems, and berries sharing space with what seemed to be boiled meat and raw, frozen liver. Adan chewed his food thoughtfully, making sure to include bites of tubers or berries every time he gnawed on the meat or liver. It wasn't necessarily the most delicious meal he'd ever had, but it filled his stomach.
They ate in silence for a while, the girls still peeking at him when they thought he was not paying attention to them. Adan abruptly broke the silence. "Does it matter? That you seem to think I'm 'beautiful.'" Him, beautiful? Patently silly.
The two girls looked at him in shock, then turned their disbelieving gazes on each other. You'd have thought he had asked if water was wet.
"Well, if you're beautiful, then it means that it's very likely you'll have beautiful babies," Lavender said, as if she were explaining the sky was blue.
"That is relevant because...?"
Once again, they shared that look. The light of comprehension suddenly lit Green's eyes. "Ah! He doesn't know our ways!"
"Don't be silly, how couldn't he?" Lavender replied hotly.
Adan interrupted them before they could truly get at it. "I suppose you can explain, Green?"
Green looked at him in surprise. "My name isn't Green!"
"It is considered courtesy among warriors to share their name with a guest," Adan said gently. It was an indirect rebuke for their bad manners, but the reminder did its job. The two looked ashamed and avoided looking at him.
"My name is Bachiko," Green said, glancing at Lavender for support.
"I'm Amaya," Lavender said, avoiding Bachiko's look.
"My name is Adan Sa Riik," Adan said pleasantly, finishing the courtesies. "Now, Bachiko, you were saying?"
The green-haired girl nodded. "For Kensai, strength is not enough. We must live up to our swords in every way, from birth to death. Our weapons are beautiful death bringers, and so we too must be beautiful and deadly. Very often, beautiful men and beautiful women have beautiful children, so it is best that we catch the most handsome men, so that we may have the most beautiful daughters to inherit the future."
It was very interesting, and it did make a strange sort of sense. Many sword arts required that wielder and weapon become one, and it was possible that if the wielder thought of themselves as beautiful, they might be better able to turn their weapon into an extension of their bodies. Adan wondered what Kara would make of the curious tidbit.
"Are you really the son of Laya?" Amaya asked suddenly.
"Then that means you're equal to mother..." the girl murmured, her tone distinctly fascinated.
Adan snorted. Among any other Layan people, he would be one massive step above the local authority, and one tiny step below his demigoddess mother. Amongst the feminist Kensai, he was 'equal' to the shousa, their overlord.
"My mother would likely disagree that your mother is equal to me," he commented dryly.
The girl's pale blue eyes widened as her face paled a bit, but her compatriot paid her no mind as Bachiko asked, "You've really been to Elysium? Is it really true that it never snows there? The shousa said that, but I can't believe there's a world where it doesn't snow!"
It was the first in an onslaught of questions that Adan answered. Their innocence amused him, but he kept that emotion hidden. It was interesting to see what they believed and what they did not. They ate up his descriptions of Dahlia, fascinated by an artificial moon of metal and filled with people, but they refused to believe his descriptions of Elysium as a world of endless summer, or of Orakio's Keep and the size of Landen City. They were mesmerized by his description of his mother Laya, yet protested as impossible his labeling his father a great warrior, since they insisted men could not be as strong on the battlefield as women.
"I see you acquired a pair of Chirpers as well," his twin's amused voice came from the doorway.
He looked up as his pair of Chirpers glanced in the same direction and bowed their foreheads to the ground. Adan shook his head as he saw Gwyn, similarly garbed in warm white clothes, her black sash with Orakio's sunburst looped over her shoulder. Without a second thought, he stood up and took it off her.
"Hey! That's mine!"
"Only when we're in a warmer dome."
His sister glared as she tried to snatch her sash out of his grip, his hand dangling it just out of her reach. "That's absurd! That's always been my sash!"
"And black has always been my color. Until we're out of Frigidia, I'm wearing this."
Gwyn sputtered in indignation as she kept hopping around to take back her sash. Gwyn's Chirpers, redhead and blonde, similarly garbed as his own, were staring at them as if they had lost their minds. His pair looked similarly concerned.
"Oh, I'm going to get you for this, Adan," his twin threatened when she finally gave up, her arms crossed in a sulk.
"Remember that time you ruined your dress and I had to lend you my cloak for the rest of the night so no one would notice? Call it even."
She stared. "Are you really calling that in? That was years ago! We were ten."
"I'm calling it in," Adan said serenely as he looped the black sash around himself in the same way Gwyn did.
"Oooooooh," his twin fumed. "Come on! The shousa wants to talk to us."
Adan eyed their Chirpers. "Lead us to the shousa," he told them.
The girls jumped at his tone and obeyed before they thought to question why they should obey a man's orders. They led the way through the many twists and turns of the encampment, past many doorways similar to his own, and others where the sounds of industry, machinery, and other work was done. The rock was carved high enough and wide enough that claustrophobia was banished. All the walls bore drawings similar to the ones in his room, with each wall telling a different story, of great hunts and battles, of many different kinds of tales. At one point, Adan recognized a crude depiction of a combat robot and guessed it described a battle at least a thousand years in the past. It would be impossible for him to find his way back on his own, but his Chirpers would likely be happy to guide him and Kara to the spot. He was certain she could tell him more about it. He enjoyed learning new things from Kara, and her thoughtful explanations were always fun to listen to.
They finally arrived in a large chamber crowded with people. At its center was an elevated dais with a large wooden throne, intricately carved with women in flowing robes supporting the handrests and back. Adan spotted Kara before the dais, a pair of her own Chirpers right behind her. Before the smile tugging at his lips could be born, it vanished. Even as Gwyn donned the royal mask of a demigoddess, he donned his own.
The woman seated on the throne was the fully-bloomed flower to Sumire's bud and Amaya's shoot. Of an age with his mother, the shousa was as beautiful as Kara, with a long mane of unbound lavender hair and clear blue eyes that missed nothing. At her feet sat her daughter Sumire, a very pretty girl, even if she glared at him with sharp blue eyes that tried to drill through his skull. Like her sister, she wore maroon and had her hair done in twintails.
"I greet you, alteza Gwyn Sa Riik, alteza Adan Sa Riik, children of Laya. I greet you, Kara Kay Eshyr, daughter of Lune," the shousa said as she stood. "I am Miyu, shousa of the Kensai and chieftain of the Falling Snow Tribe."
"We greet you in the name of our parents, King Nial Sa Riik and Queen Laya of Landen, and Lune Kay Eshyr of Dahlia," Adan replied, as formal as she. "We thank you in our own names for your hospitality and generosity."
The shousa smiled at him. "You are very aloof, alteza Adan. Even standing in front of you, I can sense your pride and nothing else. Is it a trait of your mother?" Her smile shifted from him to Gwyn. "You, alteza Gwyn, can be naught but your father's daughter. I heard your laughter earlier this morning, and could not help but hear your father's joy in it."
Adan traded a look with his twin, uncertain if the formalities were dispensed with. Gwyn shrugged ever so slightly before she looked at the shousa. "My mother says I inherited my father's sense of humor. She says Adan inherited her sister's pride."
The shousa froze for a full heartbeat before she nodded slowly. "I see. It is good that some part of the great Laya is here in this day and age." She sat and eyed them curiously. "But why have the children of Laya come to Frigidia? With the daughter of Lune, no less?"
"We seek answers to the event that shook our world," Gwyn answered, carefully avoiding all mention of the black hole the Alisa III was heading towards. "As our mother found the answers to peace in Frigidia, we too seek our answers here."
The shousa nodded. "That is a wise decision. There is much lost knowledge in the great Laya's domain. Will you be heading to Mystoke?"
Adan nodded. "Yes, that is our goal. We hope that Mystoke holds clues to the answer."
A brief silence followed. "May I offer you a suggestion, alteza Gwyn, alteza Adan?"
It was unexpectedly deferential. Adan replied, "We would be glad to receive any wisdom from you, shousa. Your knowledge of Laya's land is far greater than our own."
"I believe your interests are better served in New Mota than in Mystoke. The Historian Village holds a great deal of knowledge, some of it as old as Laya's Great War. Skyhaven holds even more, so they say."
He traded another look with his twin. "Skyhaven?" Gwyn asked.
"A city that floats in the sky," the shousa replied. "It can only be reached by machines that fly. You have a Wren. I remember Ryan once said that it was capable of transformation. Perhaps it can fly to Skyhaven?"
"He is capable of doing so," Adan responded. The only reason they had not flown to Mystoke was the damnable storm would have ended up crashing Wren. "We thank you for this gift of knowledge, shousa. We shall make our destination New Mota."
"I would be happy to provide you with guides," the shousa said. "They can take you to a nearby place of ancient technology. Perhaps you will be able to transform him there?"
"Your generosity is great, shousa," Gwyn replied. "We thank you from the bottom of our hearts."
"May I ask something of you?"
He was impressed. It was very rare that he needed to exchange looks with his twin more than twice in any setting. "If it is within our power, we are glad to give it," Adan said cautiously.
"May I see you fight, alteza Adan?"
It was the last thing he expected her to ask. She wanted to see him fight?
"I only ask because I once dueled your father. The only loss I ever suffered. You carry your sword with the natural bearing of a swordsman, so it is only natural that I would like to see your strength."
Adan inclined his head fractionally. "Then I shall display my skill. Do you have an opponent in mind?"
"I will be your opponent!"
That Sumire would choose to face him, however, did not surprise him one bit.