The trip to the capital would take half a day, and Krux resigned himself to walking the whole way. He had taken enough food to keep them going, and it wasn't like they had packed much.
An hour later, the weight of their supplies felt astronomical, and he kept having to stop and wait for Kai when the child lagged behind. Krux drank some of the water and kept his eyes on the road around them. Night wasn't always the safest time to travel, especially not during a war.
Krux heard a steady noise behind them. He stopped and turned around, his hands sparking with red time energy, but luck was on their side: a wheeled contraption much like the one Arcturus and Ryou had traveled in drew up beside them with a man, woman, and a boy around Kai's age who was, presumably, their son.
The woman leaned out with a smile. "What are you two doing this late at night?" she said. "Are you going to the capital?"
"Yes," Krux said. "I don't suppose you're going that way as well?"
She nodded and opened the door. "We'll give you a ride," she said. "Isn't that right, Ed?"
"I dunno," the man said. "It's a long way to the capital, and I'm not so certain this thing has the fuel to carry five people."
"Oh, that won't be a problem, dear, you know that." To Krux and Kai, she said, "Come on up!"
Krux helped Kai climb in and squeezed himself into a seat. Up close, he realized that while the contraption resembled the one from Metalonia, the material used was clearly not up to the standard the country was known for. "Thank you," he said to the woman. "My name is Saunders, and this is–"
Kai interrupted him. "I'm Kai!" he announced. "I'm a boy!"
Krux winced, but the woman only laughed. "That's the spirit!" she said. "I'm Edna Walker, and my husband is Ed. Our own boy is Jay–you going to say hi, Jay?"
The boy looked up briefly. "Hi," he said, and resumed tinkering with a metal gadget.
Krux thought back to Libber's baby. It had been a long time, but her son was named Jay, too. He wondered what happened to him.
The machine started moving again. "So where you heading, Saunders?" Edna asked. "The capital, of course, but what brings you there?"
"I live there," Krux said, trying not to think of all the grinding gears and parts he was sitting on. "Used to, anyway. I've mostly moved elsewhere, but there's still some things in my old home I need to recover."
"Right, right. And is this your son?"
Krux glanced at Kai and noticed how his face lit up at being referred to as a "son." "My nephew, actually," he said. "I didn't think there was that much resemblance between us."
"Eh, it's not unusual. Jay here–"
"I still say he has my eyes," Ed interrupted.
Edna laughed. "He sure does!"
Jay still didn't take his eyes off his trinket. Kai leaned over to look at it. "What's that?" he asked.
"Um," Jay said. "Just, um…"
"He's our little tinkerer," Edna said. "He's always taking apart the stuff in our junkyard, you know? Usually he puts it back together right, ha!"
"Ma!" Jay whined. "Don't embarrass me!"
Edna ruffled his head. "I'm your mother, that's my job!"
"It looks like a clock," Kai said. "Is it?"
Jay looked at Kai with wide eyes, then looked away. "Sort of," he said, not meeting his eyes. "Um, it was a watch, but it broke. So… I'm trying to fix it."
"That's cool," said Kai. "Do you go to school?"
"Yeah? Do you, um, not go to school?"
Kai shrank back a little. "I go to school," he said, entirely unconvincingly.
Jay didn't seem to notice. "Oh, okay," he said. "Um… do you want to see something I made?"
Jay looked at Edna, who smiled and reached into her suitcase. "Here you go, dear," she said, handing over a small metal toy. "Do you want me to wind it up for you?"
He shook his head and snatched it out of her hands. "Look," he said, holding it in front of Kai. "You turn this, and…"
Kai watched in awe as Jay wound up the toy and set it on the floor, where its legs rotated and it walked around in a clumsy circle. Jay picked it up once it wound to a stop and showed Kai how it worked, explaining in a quiet voice each part. Krux couldn't help but smile at the two children talking, though a twinge of sadness came with it. Other than his sister, Jay was the first kid his age Kai had ever met.
Edna made idle chatter while Ed steered, and they had a pleasant trip through the night.
When they reached the capital, the sun was just beginning to rise. Kai and Jay were asleep in their seats, with Kai's head resting on Jay's shoulder. "They got along pretty well," Edna said. "I'm glad for it. Jay doesn't have a lot of friends at school, poor thing."
"Really?" Krux said. "That's a shame. He seems a good kid."
"He is, he is."
Ed stopped the machine near a small inn. Krux gently nudged Kai while Edna woke up Jay, and the five of them disembarked. "Thank you for the ride," Krux said. "Is there anything I can do to repay you?"
"Oh, just pay it forward!" Edna smiled. "That's all any of us can do, isn't it?"
Krux nodded. "Well, thank you again."
"Bye, Kai," Jay said, still half-asleep and unsteady on his feet. He clutched Ed's hand to stay up. "I'll see you later?"
"Maybe," said Kai. "Probably not. I dunno."
The separated. Krux took Kai's hand and led him through the city towards the palace.
The guards who met them at the gates were all new, and Krux was fairly certain he recognized a few from Chen's camp. If they knew him, they didn't mention it. "State your business," one said.
"I'm answering a letter from Master Chen," Krux said. "He requested the Master of Fire to come to the capital, and this is him."
Kai ducked behind Krux's legs.
The two guards looked at Kai. "A child?" the other one said. "I didn't think…"
He trailed off. Krux frowned. "Didn't think what?"
"Come with us."
Krux and Kai were taken to a small room within the palace, where they sat and waited. Krux fiddled with his sleeves and wondered what was taking Chen so long.
Eventually, a third guard arrived. "I will escort you to the emperor," he said.
"The emperor?" Krux said in alarm.
"Yes, Emperor Chen."
Krux hesitated, but it was too late to back out now. He roused Kai, who had fallen asleep again, and they followed the guard through the palace to the throne room.
"Oh, Krux! I wasn't expecting you!"
Emperor Chen grinned down at them from the throne. Krux nodded, and upon consideration, bowed. Kai followed his example. "Greetings, Emperor Chen," said Krux. "I was unaware you had taken the throne."
"Oh, pff." Chen waved a hand in the air dismissively. "'Taken' implies I did something unsavory. Really, all that happened was I was the only person who wanted the responsibility of managing both humans and serpentine. So what brings you here, Master of Time? And who's this with you?"
Krux raised his head. "I was visiting my friends when Wu received your letter," he said. "He would have refused to work with you, but, well, even if it was understandable, I thought it was unfair." He took a deep breath. "So I came here with Kai, the Master of Fire."
"Oh, how exciting!" Chen said. "One of Maya and Ray's girls, is that right? Is the other one here, too? Or the parents?"
"No. Just us." Krux glanced at Kai, who was eyeing their surroundings and hadn't noticed Chen misgendering him. "His family stayed behind."
Chen nodded. "Interesting," he said. "Very interesting. Now, I hate to ask, but I was under the impression the Masters of Fire and Water were both girls."
"I–I'm, uh–" Kai stumbled over his words. "I'm a boy," he said, barely above a whisper.
"Really!" Chen laughed. "My son is the same way! My daughter, I should say? Oh, it's so hard to get used to, but, well, Lark was insistent that we call Skylor a girl, and I suppose it doesn't matter as long as I have a worthy heir."
Krux tried to suppress his growing unease. "How is your wife, by the way?" he said. "Last I heard, she was ill."
"Ah, she's only been getting worse, I'm afraid. Even the finest doctors in the empire can't do much for her." Chen didn't stop smiling the whole time he spoke. "But let's not dwell on depressing topics. Come, come! There are other Elemental Masters for you to meet!"
"Do you think the Master of Fire was the only one I invited?" he said. "I've gathered most of them, though I'm still missing a few. They really scattered in the years you've been gone, didn't you know?"
"I had an idea," Krux said. "This will be the first time I've seen some of them since, well…"
"Good grief, enough with all these heavy topics. I promise you no one is going to try and execute anyone." Chen motioned to the guards. "Take the Master of Time and the Master of Fire to the banquet hall," he said. "I'm still waiting for a few more guests."
Krux took Kai's hand and walked with the guards. He had to pull the boy along, what with how Kai was dragging his feet. "Keep up," he said to him. "You're not normally this slow."
"I'm scared," Kai whispered. "I want to go home."
"I know it's scary, but this will be good for you, you'll see."
"Is Emperor Chen really your friend?"
Krux didn't speak for a moment. "I trust him," he said. "Listen, Kai, I'll be here if something goes wrong, alright? There's nothing to be afraid of."
Kai nodded, but clearly, he was unconvinced, and the deeper they went, Krux found it harder and harder to believe his own words.