"I spy with my little eye something beginning with 's,'" Gwyn said.
Adan sighed. "Snow."
"Yup. I spy with my little eye something beginning with 'm.'"
Laya, give me patience! "More snow."
"You've always been pretty good at this game," Gwyn said brightly. "Now, I spy with my little eye something beginning with 'e.'"
"Gwyn, Orakio help you if you—"
"Giving up already? Guess!"
With a sigh, he answered. Gwyn answered with him. "Even more snow."
Adan scooped up a wad of the white stuff, rolled it into a ball, turned around, and chucked it at Gwyn. He scowled when his target ducked and escaped retaliation.
Just where had Gwyn inherited her caustic tongue? No matter which of his relatives he compared to his twin, none of them seemed to have a comparable sardonic streak. Perhaps Grandfather Rhys, but even then, it seemed Gwyn had taken that and made it her own. There were worse character traits, but it would still be nice if he did not have to experience the rough side of her tongue quite so often. Adan consoled himself that at least the gentler Kara would never ape his sister.
"It was your idea to come here in the first place," he reminded his sister patiently. "Lest we forget exactly who said we should go to Frigidia." Perhaps his patience was not holding up that well.
It was unfortunate, but they had had the bad timing to enter Frigidia during a blizzard, something that was seen rarely in Landen. None of them had been prepared for just how frigid the dome was; the cold was so bitter it bit right into the bones, driving out every scrap of heat. Adan, Gwyn and Kara were wearing every stitch of clothing they had packed into their travel bags. It was not much, but it helped. Marginally.
"It might have been my idea, but I don't remember mentioning walking through a blizzard. Or stomping around without cold weather gear either!"
It was the same argument they had been having for the past three days. It served absolutely no purpose beyond giving them a chance to vent out their frustrations with the slow pace and the icy, cutting cold.
"Elysium doesn't even have a winter season. We would not have been able to buy anything useful there. Besides, you said it was important we leave quickly."
"I said quickly. I never said without taking proper preparations!"
"Don't you think you should have thought of this in Aerone?" Adan demanded.
"I was a little busy panicking. The end of the world tends to have that kind of effect," Gwyn shot back.
"Stop arguing you two," Mieu scolded mildly. "Or do we have to turn back?"
Argument ended by their vehement joint agreement, Adan focused on wading through the snow, eyes on the black metal of Wren's large back. The combat android was in the lead, plowing a path for the Palmans to follow, their armor in a sack on his back. Their movements were impaired enough by the cold and their makeshift attempts to conserve heat without their armor impeding them further. Besides, the metal chilled to the bone.
Adan tried to wrap his cape tighter around himself. It was a wonder they had made it so far. The howling winds and piling snow would have been enough to kill them on the first day, if not for Mieu and Wren. Mieu had taken charge of them, chivying them into wearing every article of clothing they owned, taking precautions to prevent any possibility of frostbite, inspecting them from head to toe every time they made camp.
Almost against his will, he glanced over his shoulder. He saw a hint of red hair in the rearguard out of the corner of his eye. In front of Mieu, Gwyn under her black cloak and Kara under one of his white capes huddled together for warmth. His cheeks warmed as he caught sight of the green-haired moon princess.
It was making camp that was the worst. Every night, Wren built a shelter using nothing more than the snow and ice. The shelter was surprisingly warm, given the building materials and weather conditions. But every night, without fail, Mieu forced each of them to strip down to their underclothes while she checked them for any hints of frostbite.
It would have been fine if it was just him and Gwyn, but Kara's presence made things a little uncomfortable. When it was Kara's turn to be checked for frostbite, he resolutely stared at the wall, his back to her. That would have worked but for one miscalculation; the moon princess' shadow happened to disrobe on the wall he had fastened his eyes on. He sincerely hoped that seeing her almost-naked body's silhouette as a shadow on the wall did not count as "peeking." He liked living, and he did not think he could survive his sister's promised retribution if it did.
There was also the feeling of being watched when it was his turn to be inspected. If he had not known better, he would have sworn that Kara was watching him every time Mieu was checking him for frostbite. No matter how he tried to confirm that, he never found her eyes on him, so it was likely just his imagination. Just because she was blushing when Mieu finished did not mean Kara was getting an eyeful of him. She had better reasons to blush.
Every night, Mieu had the three of them sleep together for warmth. Since their clothing was wet from the snow by the time they made camp, and none of them had the energy to stay awake waiting for their clothes to dry, that meant the three of them under three layers of blankets. Kara and Gwyn had nightclothes, but he had sacrificed his own for additional protection from the cold. Every morning, he awakened with the sleeping Kara cuddled up to him, a hint of her sweet fresa scent filling his nose.
It was one of the mysteries of this trip. He supposed that in the cold, the body unconsciously sought out heat, but being used as an oversized comforter was more than just a little embarrassing! Another of the mysteries was that, despite her complaints, Gwyn had taken to the cold with joy, delighting in the freezing temperature far more than she complained about it. Adan suspected it was the blizzard she objected to most.
"Master Adan," Wren said abruptly.
"What is it, Wren?" Adan asked, his teeth chattering as he tried to listen through the wind's determined shrieks.
"I detect ten lifeforms surrounding us."
"Monster?" he asked. They had been attacked by the native fauna as well as by the aggressive new monsters that obeyed no Layan. While melee was difficult under the weather conditions, magic was under no such restriction.
"My sensors indicate Palman."
The Landenian prince trudged on for a few more steps as he considered that. "Are they making any hostile moves?"
Wren had not stopped walking, either. "They seem to be shadowing us."
"Where's the closest one?" Adan asked tiredly.
"Approximately twenty meters to your right, Master Adan."
Adan resolutely turned to his right and marched into the snow drifts. Well, slogged into the snow drifts; the snow easily reached past his waist, so taking long enough strides to cover those "approximately twenty meters" was difficult. By the time he finally counted out those twenty paces, his legs were trembling. He stood in place, his eyes searching for their shadow. It was possible that their shadow had moved away when he saw them coming, but Adan found that unlikely. Movement was easier to spot than stillness, and while he doubted he could find his own mother in this mess, their shadows were unlikely to be similarly handicapped.
His ears caught the slightest snap of cloth in the wind just to his left. He leaped and landed hard on their shadow. The stranger retaliated quickly, lashing out with a punch at his short ribs that knocked the wind out of him. Ignoring the pain even as he gasped for breath, he grappled with his opponent, tumbling deeper into the snow as they twisted and turned, attempting to pin the other down. His opponent brought up a knee, aimed squarely at the eternal male weakness. Adan grunted as he twisted his hip and took the blow on his thigh. He retaliated with a headbutt that promised to give him a headache just as bad as the one he had given his opponent. Either way, his assailant was temporarily stunned, so he quickly pinned the villain face down in the snow, arms locked behind the back.
Three swords suddenly appeared in the haze of white, all of them pointed at his head. Adan's eyes studied his situation as three white-cloaked figures appeared, their slightly curved blades an obvious, though toothless, threat. His right hand slashed the air in front of him as he snarled out a spell. "Hewn!"
An invisible spiral formed in front of his opponents. The turbulent force spun faster and faster as a vortex of wind formed and hit the three figures hard. The powerful gyre of wind hurled the three of them into the air like children's dolls. When they crashed down, the drifts erupted into geysers of snow.
The Landenian prince looked up as his twin called his name. Her distinctive black cloak danced in the wind as she followed his path through the drifts. Her head was bared, and what had once been a part of his nightshirt was wrapped around her ears to protect them from the cold. "Over here, Gwyn!"
He caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eyes. He extended his right hand toward where his opponents had landed. Fingertips glowed as heat gathered at the edge of his hand. "Flaeli!"
A sphere of flame formed at the tip of his fingers before it broke into four shafts of fire. The flares flew through the air before they struck the ground, evaporating the snow in a burst of superheated steam that shocked his assailants, freezing them in their tracks.
Unfortunately, the assailant he had pinned before used his temporary distraction as an opportunity to throw him off. He landed on his back in the snow, his opponent on top of him before he had time to realize what had happened. He caught the fist aimed at his head and bucked his hips with all of his might, using the momentum of his opponent's attack with his own to once again hold his assailant down. Adan quickly immobilized his opponent's free arm and shifted his body so all of his body rested against his assailant's stomach.
"Get off of me!"
Adan froze. The voice, muffled by at least one scarf, was distinctly feminine. Without thinking, he pulled off the scarf to reveal a young, very pretty face framed by light lavender hair.
"You're a girl?"
"That's what I wanted to tell you."
The sound of his twin's voice brought Adan's head up. Not one to pass on an opening, the opportunistic git he had already pinned twice used her free hand to punch him in the short ribs. Again. Adan kneed her in the stomach even as he gasped for air, returning the favor before she could once again turn the tables. The girl's sharp blue eyes were augurs trying to drill through his skull even as she tried to fill her lungs.
Gwyn waited until she was certain Adan would not end up rolling through the snow again before she resumed speaking. "They're Kensai, Adan."
She pointed behind her. Adan could just make out Wren and Mieu dragging a half-dozen cloaked figures through the snow. Wren went to pick up the three others he had been facing and was soon dragging the furiously wriggling group away. He did not see Kara. He felt a burst of panic, quickly brought under control. Gwyn would not abandon Kara if she were injured.
He gave Gwyn an annoyed look as he realized something. "Couldn't you have used Bindwa on them a little sooner?"
His twin raised her eyebrows at him. "Someone failed to mention what he was doing when he suddenly walked off."
He grunted. "My sincere apologies." The cold was affecting his brain. It was the only thing he could think of to explain such a mistake on his part.
"Now, let's deal with this one underfoot," Gwyn said cheerfully.
Easier said than done. The girl tried twice to escape, the first time by attempting to overbalance him and the second by trying to use her head as a battering ram against his jaw, but he managed to counter both of her attempts. The girl sullenly glared at nowhere in particular, her arm in a vise grip behind her back. The pressure he applied to her wrist kept her arm just a slight twist away from being pulled out of her shoulder socket.
Gwyn doffed her improvised head covering, revealing the tikal, the glittering red ruby that marked the forehead of the Laya and her immediate successor. Her golden hair shone like a beacon in the snow as it danced in the wind. He watched as his twin abandoned her self to don the imperious mask of a demigoddess. Her indigo eyes, the same as his own, stared out into the world, proud, commanding, unbreakable, acknowledging no equals, brooking no defiance.
It was like looking into a strange kind of mirror.
"Do you know who I am, girl?" Gwyn asked, her voice sharper than a laconia sword, her tone colder than Frigidia's night.
The Kensai girl nodded unwillingly. "Otherworldly eyes and the tikal mark you as Laya."
"I'm the daughter and heir of Laya," Gwyn corrected, her voice frosty enough to chill wine. "The man you've been hitting is my twin brother."
The girl whimpered. She bowed her head as low as she could, given Adan's iron grip on her arm. "Please forgive me, alteza. I did not know who you were, alteza."
There was a pause in the conversation. Adan recalled his lessons. The Kensai were a loose confederation of matriarchal warrior tribes that ruled Frigidia's frozen wastes, descended from a corps of Laya's most elite and dedicated troops. They survived by hunting and gathering, along with occasional trade. They fought amongst themselves, raiding each other for food, goods, and people, even as they raided other Layan towns. They had a queen of sorts, known as the shousa. The shousa, in theory, was the overlord of all the tribes. Unlike other Layans, they used swords as their principal weapons. They were also very sexist; they did not consider men to be on the same level as women.
"Apologize to my brother, girl. Then I'll consider what to do with you."
The silence that followed Gwyn's command was painfully long. He looked at his twin over the Kensai girl's head. Gwyn was asserting her dominance as Laya's heir. If the Kensai girl obeyed, it meant his twin had successfully asserted her right to command.
"I apologize...alteza. Please pardon my behavior," the Kensai girl said. It almost sounded like the words had been dragged out of her mouth.
"Your apology is duly accepted," Adan said coolly, dismissively. He released her and casually stood beside his sister, undoing his makeshift headgear to expose his own tikal. He folded his arms, dismissing the Kensai girl as inconsequential by body language alone.
Gwyn nodded, her posture making it clear that the girl's obedience was merely an expected formality. "You are the daughter of the shousa?"
The Kensai girl went slack. Adan watched, still bemused, as the girl fall to her knees in the snow, goggling. "H-how...alteza...how...?"
"I asked a question."
The Kensai girl swallowed. He watched, secretly amused, as she visibly rallied her wits. "Yes, alteza. I am Sumire, daughter of the shousa."
"You will take my brother and I to your mother," Gwyn said calmly.
"Yes, alteza," Sumire said, bowing low. The Kensai girl looked up at Gwyn. "Alteza, if I may ask, my companions...?"
"I'll release their bindings as soon as they apologize to my brother and I."
Sumire bowed once again. "Yes, alteza. I will tell them. Thank you, alteza."
Adan watched as the Kensai girl scampered off to where Wren and Mieu stood. "Nice job."
"My compliments on making an educated guess sound like mind reading."
"Father's a good storyteller."
His twin looked at him from out of the corner of her eyes. "Keeping an eye on our things. After you started rolling around with the Kensai princess, her friends tried to capture us. Since Wren and Mieu were busy dragging our prisoners over here, she volunteered to keep our stuff from getting lost."
"I see," Adan said, a little relieved. He straightened. "Do you want to do all the talking when we meet with the shousa? I dealt with Lune, so it's your turn."
His sister gave him a mischievous smile. "We're Laya's royal twins."
Adan returned his twin's smile. "I'm not speaking in stereo."
"We'll take turns, then," Gwyn replied, grin still in place as she started to walk toward the waiting androids. "Know what I'm looking forward to the most at the Kensai camp?"
Adan sighed. "I will never hear the end of this from you, will I?"