Chapter 41

"Are you going to give me the cold shoulder the entire way?"

Lien pursed her lips at his terrible pun. It was incredibly uncomfortable flying through the air while being pelted with freezing rain, and she was still aggravated that he had just decided to jump them there without really asking her. However, they would get there faster, which she supposed made it better. Lien ducked her head into her hood and hid her face as much as possible as she allowed herself to heat up a little bit.

"Much better," Jae-Ha said, a smile in his voice, "I knew deciding to come along with you was the right decision."

"And I knew that's why you decided to tag along," Lien teased, breaking her silence, "You were always planning to use me as a personal heater."

"Ah, so you can talk!" Jae-Ha laughed. "You can't blame me, by the way. It's like getting hugged by a candle."

Lien smirked. "I feel like that would be really waxy and uncomfortable…"

"It's better that getting hugged by an oil lamp."

"Or a bonfire."

"Or a wildfire."

"Must agree, let's avoid those," Lien said.

Jae-Ha bent his head forward as they soared through the rain and the winds, getting soaked in the process. He shivered and tightened his grip on Lien's legs while she tried kept her hold around his neck without making it uncomfortable for him. She sent more warmth to her hands, trying to keep his core heated so he didn't freeze. "Maybe j-jumping wasn't the best idea, for once."

"We'll get there faster," she said, "And then everyone else can come too, and we can get dry, and it'll be nice."

"You're optimistic today."

Lien bumped the back of his head with her forehead chidingly. "I'm usually optimistic!"

"True," Jae-Ha said, "I guess you are. How about you send your positive feelings at this storm and make it go away."

"I don't think that's how it works."

"Really? Maybe you need more useful powers, then, like ice-controlling ones," Jae-Ha said, his tone dry and laced with amusement.

Lien loosened her grip for a moment to poke him in the cheek, letting her hand warm up. Her powers may be a little erratic, but they were far more useful than ice powers. The idea… She knew he was teasing her, like he always seemed to be. He acted like an older brother to all of them, except to maybe Hak, who he treated like they were the same age.

Finally they began to descend, the ground rushing up at them at a terrifying speed. Lien closed his eyes and hid her face in his shoulder as he dropped through the ice, the rain tearing at their clothes and any exposed skin. Not even the heat she was generating was enough to keep them warm as the wind pulled at them.

Teeth chattering, they landed behind some scrubby trees near the building, and Jae-Ha let Lien down. She didn't go far though; it was too cold to move apart, and he tossed an arm around her shoulder. "Wait, I need my personal heater."

"Oh, so now I'm useful."

"I take back everything I said."

As they came out from behind the trees, Lien could tell that the building was actually a large inn, three stories tall and constructed from a warm reddish kind of wood. Banners and flags declaring its status as an inn that hung off the roof and the eaves were dripping, and thin icicles were beginning to grow on some of them. Steam and smoke rose from the building, though the wisps were getting knocked down almost immediately by the rain.

"Maybe we're luckier than I thought," Jae-Ha said as they started walking forward. "Makes sense there's an inn this way, we haven't seen anywhere else to stay and travelers need somewhere to go."

"I think this area is still in Kouka," Lien said, "We haven't gone quite far enough to reach Kai."

"Unless Kai took it over," Jae-Ha said, "My captain has said before that we've been losing land ever since Il took over."

Oh, right, he had been a pirate. She nodded, taking care as she stepped forward around a rock in the path. If the rain switched to snow, the path was going to be difficult in the morning. "The countries around Kouka have been taking land where they can. Kai is having problems inside itself, though."

"Internal strife is the worst strife," Jae-Ha said, his tone taking on a dark tinge. He was probably thinking of Kouka's own recent bloody coupe.

"Agreed," Lien said. The last thing Kouka needed was a civil war on top of defending itself against the neighboring countries. Most of them were more powerful than Kouka, especially now. Lien had traveled through most of them, and none of them had areas that were quite as poor as the Fire Lands had been.

It took them a while trudging through the snow to reach the front porch of the inn, and they knocked their boots off the best they could before going up the steps. Jae-Ha let go of Lien's shoulders so he could ring the bell by the door, picking up the metal rod to give it a whack. It peeled loudly, and he dropped the rod before standing slightly in front of Lien.

"I don't need a shield," she said lightly.

"I'm aware," he said in a sing-song tone, not looking back at her.

Oh, he knew, but he was still going to be protective. Part of her was appreciative, and the other part…she wasn't really annoyed, but she did want him to trust her to take care of herself. Especially when he usually stuck up for her in that area.

The door opened, and a man poked his head out. He had a long grey beard and a dark, suspicious eyes that narrowed at them before widening. "Are you looking for lodging?" he asked, "We have plenty of accommodations for a newlywed couple!"

Lien blinked, surprised, while Jae-Ha snorted. "I'm sorry, grandpa, but I think she's spoken for and not by me," he said, which caught her off-guard all over again. Who was he talking about? Wait… She stared at Jae-Ha, who went on talking to the innkeeper. "Do you have a room large enough for eight people and a squirrel?"

"A…a squirrel?" The older man said, his bushy eyebrows lifting. He leaned to one side and then the other before giving Jae-Ha a suspicious squint. "I hate to break it to you, but there are only two of you, and not a squirrel in sight."

"Everyone else is on their way," Jae-Ha said, "If we can stay here, that is."

Lien glanced at Jae-Ha. There didn't seem to be any soldiers around and presumably it would be safe for Yona to stay here; most likely no one would recognize her. In any case, they couldn't comfortably stay outside tonight, not even with their new camping gear. Staying here was the option, seeing how it might take them ages to find an unoccupied cave. She, for one, didn't feel like fighting a bear in the rain, or maybe fighting a bear at all, ever.

"Certainly, we have room enough," the man said, still giving them an uncertain look. He stepped back, gesturing for them to come in. "It's warm in here, and my wife can cook a nice dinner for you all, provided you have the coin for it?"

Jae-Ha looked at the open door and then down at Lien, and she could practically see his mind working. He would have to go back to tell the others everything was fine, and leaving her here would mean that she could go ahead and start fixing the room and talk with the proprietors. But he didn't want to leave her behind on her own.

"I'll help you get everything set up," she said, moving forward. Her elbow tugged backward, halting her. Jae-Ha had snagged her sleeve.

"I'll go with you and then go back for the others," he said with a smile, "Just in case."

What, in case the elderly couple turned out to be bandits? Or con artists or slavers or any number of things, she supposed. Lien decided that it wasn't worth the argument and nodded. "If you want."

Jae-Ha released her sleeve, and they all went inside, where it was warm and toasty, if a little musty. She looked around while Jae-Ha did some inspecting of his own, talking to the inn keeper while he poked his head into the first few rooms.

"No rats or anything?" he asked.

"You're the ones bringing the squirrel," the old man said, shrugging, "We run a clean place."

While Jae-Ha glanced at a few more of the rooms, Lien was approached by the lady of the house. A tall, willowy woman, she was younger than her husband, with kind brown eyes and a few laugh lines around her mouth.

"You must be chilled to the bone," she said, shaking her head. "Why don't you come this way and get warm in front of the fire?"

Lien glanced back, hesitating. "Jae-Ha…?"

He leaned out of one of the rooms. "Go on, I'll go back for the others."

"Are you sure you won't get cold?" she asked, her hands going to her hips.

The inn keeper's eyebrows rose. "Are you sure you're not together?"

Jae-Ha laughed. "I'll be fine, thank you for worrying, and I'm very sure." He tilted his head to Lien, walking to the door. "I won't be long. Don't forget, you have a fan."

Razor-edged and ready to go, just in case. Lien smiled back, and a moment later, Jae-Ha headed back out into the freezing rain to go get their friends.