A few days had passed since the ball. In that time, Queen Elarin met with everyone that had been involved in the escape, from the other prisoners to Ædarik and his party. She made sure that they were fully rewarded or given a head start where appropriate.
From what Rowan could tell, part of that included arranging transport for those that wished to return home or set up somewhere outside of the capital along with a fair amount of coin. A few were granted apprenticeships instead.
All in all, it was a busy time for everyone, Rowan included. She wanted to spend as much time with both Alena and Seres as she could, though for completely different reasons, whilst also needing to prepare for her trip back home. On top of that she still needed to train and come to terms with what was now expected of her as both a lady and the Ardent Flame.
The solution to spending time with Alena was probably the easiest one to find. It just involved inviting her to stay with Rowan for the remaining few nights they had left together. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it worked and it helped to keep her nightmares at bay which was no small feat.
She’d been lucky that they hadn’t been haunting her too much since the escape. Alas, nothing could keep Rowan’s demon’s away forever; years worth of pain and suffering had made them too strong. Even so, a loving embrace never failed to at least help.
Unfortunately, Alena wasn’t able to stay with her during the day as she had her own preparations to attend to. Her friends also refused to let Rowan hog her, which she found to be weirdly adorable. On the flipside, less Alena also meant less of Seres feeling like a third wheel. It wasn’t exactly the kind of thing that you wanted to put your honorary sister through.
Another advantage to Alena not being around during the day is that it made getting ready for her own trip significantly easier. Granted this was mostly due to Rowan being sure that she’d be too distracted if Alena were there, but it was also due to Seres needing to do much of the same prep so they could do it together.
On the second day, Rowan found a small solution to the issue of needing to train as well as that of being Seres’ protector. It was obvious really; Seres needed to learn the basics of self defence. She’d never be good enough to defend against an experienced Ardent or Stoic, but they were rare enough that Rowan could take sole responsibility for them.
Smaller threats such as bandits and thieves, however? They tended to strike in numbers or catch you unaware. If Rowan had to constantly worry about Seres being completely undefended, she would likely get herself killed. Especially when you considered that she was far from being invincible. Even with her resilience and improved healing, a knife to the heart was still very much a death sentence. Fortunately, old age and cancer would never be an issue for her.
Yay for practical immortality!
As Rowan was considering how to broach her idea to Seres, she was wondering whether or not armour was also a thing that needed suggesting. On the one hand, Seres had an image to maintain as a princess. On the other hand, armour was kind of useful for not dying.
Rowan would need some herself, though not too much. She’d need to weigh up the pros and cons which was harder than it sounded. More armour meant more security which didn’t really do much to heighten her emotional state. Less armour, however, meant less security and by extension, significantly heightened fear and anticipation. Rowan didn’t like being afraid, but she couldn’t deny that the Arsent enhanced senses from it would be incredibly useful in a combat situation. As for anticipation, the advantages of quickened reflexes were as clear as night and day. On top of that, the heightened emotions would also massively increase her physical attributes.
The more Rowan considered it, the more she came to the conclusion that armour was ironically better when she wasn’t expecting a fight. Improved reflexes didn’t exactly help when you already had an arrow sticking out of you after all. In combat, however, less armour would probably be better. Or more accurately, less of what Rowan would consider to be armour. Some things were easier said than done.
Before Rowan knew it, day three was rolling in. The day before had practically been a dud as Rowan had spent it mindlessly packing while thinking about self defence training and armour. And even after all that, she almost forgot to bring it up with Seres. If it hadn’t been for both Seres and Alena noticing she was more than a bit out of it, she may have forgotten entirely. Fortunately Seres agreed, though she did ask that it wait until they were on the road. Something about not wanting to embarrass herself in front of military folk.
With that request in mind, Rowan decided to hold off on training until they were on the road as well. That left one very important bit of prep that she needed to do; talk to Tyris. She had to know what to expect when she got home.
Finding him wasn’t too much of a challenge, which is to say it was unreasonably easy. All she had to do was ask in the navy barracks where she could find him and she was promptly directed to his quarters. Funnily enough, this was actually her first time visiting them.
She knocked nervously on the door. It was a weird thing to be nervous about, yet here she was. Likely it was due to the fact that she hadn’t seen him since before the ball. She hadn’t had the chance with everything that had been going on and she was somewhat distracted at the ball. Of course that’s assuming he was actually there. It’s possible that he was considering his rank. Alas, she hadn’t seen him so she couldn’t be sure.
With that said, at least she wasn’t knocking on say, a bathroom door with Alena on the other side. That would be an entirely different kind of nervousness.
“Hello?” Tyris called out from within the room.
“Well don’t stand around out there. Come on in. The door’s not locked.”
That seemed like a security oversight. Not that Rowan could really say anything about it; she didn’t exactly have the means to lock her own doors. Granted, she was sure Avra would have a means of bypassing them even if they could be locked. Regardless, it was convenient, or at least it would be if the door knob would turn.
“I think it’s stuck,” Rowan called out.
“Are you turning it the right way?” Tyris replied.
“Yes?” Rowan answered, feeling a touch of red on her cheeks as she tried to turn the knob counter-clockwise. It felt unnatural. Even so, it worked and the door swung open to reveal a surprisingly plain room. That isn’t to say it didn’t look nice, it was just plain. Not at all what Rowan expected.
“You look disappointed,” Tyris observed. He was sitting at a desk covered in paperwork, though he had turned his chair to face Rowan.
“No no no,” Rowan stammered, “It’s just…”
Tyris laughed. “I’m just teasing, my little red lady.”
Rowan blushed harder.
“Sorry about the door being awkward by the way. For some reason they decided to have it open with only counter turning. As for my room? I’m not here enough to really feel the need to decorate?”
“We’re at sea for the better part of the year, so I decided to decorate my cabin instead. I see you’re wearing Elan Fiir, by the way.”
“Yep. Queen Elarin said I could now that I have my titles.”
“Is that why you came to visit? To show it off?”
“No! I wanted to see you. Plus there are a few things I need to ask. The showing off bit is just a nice little bonus.”
“I swear, if this were eleven years ago, the order would be flipped.”
Rowan was horrified at the suggestion and objected heavily with a single word.
“I’m joking,” Tyris laughed.
“Well bleh,” Rowan replied, sticking her tongue out at him.
“How old are you again?”
“I don’t see the relevance of the question.”
“Because you’re acting like a child.”
“Better than acting like an old fogey,” Rowan grinned smugly.
“You got me. Let this be a lesson dearest little sister. In eleven years, you’ll be wizened and ancient, just like weary old me.”
“Except I’ll still look good.”
“Ouch! That really hurt, oh sister of mine.”
“Stop being dramatic. I wanted to ask you about home.”
Tyris’ expression turned serious at the mention of home. “Go on?” he said.
“I need to know what to expect. It’s been so long and it’s probably changed as much as I have.”
“Probably. I can’t really say much. After the attack there hasn’t been much to make me go back. If it weren’t for Dad, I wouldn’t go back at all, but I can’t just leave him alone. Even then, I’m lucky if I can visit more than once a year. I tried to convince him to move here instead, but he wouldn’t have any of it. He’s not doing great, to be honest.”
“Well I’ll have to fix that.”
“Good luck. I imagine you’ll cause quite a stir when you arrive. With the exception of a few people, no one that was declared missing ever returned and those exceptions were limited to the first couple of weeks.”
“I think I know who they are?”
“When I Awakened, it was because they took Tehri away to kill her. I managed to break free and chase after the ones that took her and killed them. A few of the others managed to escape in the confusion. At least I assume they did because I never saw them after that. Are you sure you haven’t heard anything about Tehri?”
“Absolutely nothing. We had people looking for months. We even interrogated the bandits when we found them with the hopes that they would tell us where you had all been sent. Complete silence. Not one spoke.”
“Thanks for trying.”
“Think nothing of it. I’d do it all a thousand times over if it meant finding Tehri or lessening your pain.”
Rowan felt her eyes well up. The tears were sporadic at first. Then they streamed. She fell into her brother’s arms and cried. It was sudden, but she didn’t care. Talking about home was painful and while she had tried to contain it through good cheer, the sincerity of that last line broke open the flood gates.
Tyris held her gently and stroked her hair softly. “There, there,” he said quietly, “I’m here.”
Rowan stayed in her brother’s embrace for a good ten minutes, crying the whole time, before she pulled back, still sniffling.
“I probably look awful,” she said, wiping away the tears. It didn’t help that wearing makeup had become a part of daily routine. Mascara and eyeliner did not mix well with excessive crying.
To add insult to injury, Tyris replied with, “Most definitely.”
“You’re not supposed to agree with me!” laughed Rowan sadly.
“Would you rather I say you look as beautiful as ash-touched snow?”
“That’s even worse!”
Not much was said after that. Rowan had most of what she needed to know. That is most of what she needed that Tyris could provide. There were still gaps, but it was better than nothing. He did add one last thing before Rowan left, which she definitely appreciated. Shortly after that, Rowan said her goodbyes. It was likely the last time she’d be seeing him for a while as she was leaving the next day and he would likely be at sea when she returned. And then she had her assignment in Særis. For all she knew it could be more than a year. Even so, she kept her farewell brief. She didn’t want to break down in front of him again.
Everyone was up early the next morning and standing by the docks as the ships were loaded. They found the autumn air was crisp as it carried the first hints of winter.
Alena and her friends were due to leave with the second morning tide as was everyone that was going to Særis. Less than fifteen minutes now. Rowan and Seres would be leaving not long after.
Rowan had refused to let anyone say goodbye until she was ready. Any of the main people that is. She wasn’t close enough to the other prisoners to even try to dictate what they did, nor would it be fair.
Alas, she couldn’t wait forever and the longer she waited, the more it would hurt. She started with Ædarik.
“I guess this is where we part ways?”
“So it is,” Ædarik replied somberly.
“Thank you for trying to rescue us back in the caves. It was a stupid thing to do, but I won’t deny that it must have taken a whole lot of guts. My advice for next time you go on a rescue mission, try to be a little more prepared.”
“I was rather out of my depth, wasn’t I,” Ædarik laughed loudly.
“More than a little,” Rowan giggled. She then gave him a big farewell hug, big for her that is, and added, “Good luck with Ashlin.”
Once Rowan had let her go, Seres gave him her own farewell hug.
“We really do owe you,” she said. “Without your help I don’t know how we would have found our way home.”
“I’m sure you’d have managed.”
After Ædarik was Ashlin which ended with good luck much like the previous one had. From the look that she gave Ædarik, it was clear that she felt like she didn’t need any. She then surprised Rowan by saying that she was jealous of her and Alena in a tone that suggested she wanted a bit of the action. Rowan wasn’t sure what to make of that.
Rowan didn’t dwell too long on Davra or Deilin simply by nature of having interacted with them the least. Deilin especially. Rowan almost got the impression that she intimidated her. Granted, if that were the case, she couldn’t exactly blame her considering that mentioned her oath of vengeance during their first ever conversation. Davra on the other hand seemed more cautious of Rowan than anything. Even so, she wholeheartedly congratulated Rowan on her relationship with Alena.
After Davra was Maro which was another short and sweet ordeal. However, unlike the other short farewells, a lot was still said without them saying much of anything. After what they had been through, words didn’t need to be spoken to be said.
In stark contrast, her farewell with Amran was surprisingly wordy. Which is to say, actual spoken words.
“When we next see each other, you better be twice the Ardent you are now,” he said.
“And you better have a fully articulated prosthetic foot,” Rowan laughed.
“I think you’re overestimating how quickly it will take to complete and calibrate a working foot.”
“Right back at you.”
“Point taken. Take care of yourself, Rowan. When you’re done with everything you need to do here, I’ll see you in Særis.”
With that done, Rowan was left with the goodbye she had been dreading. Before she could say anything, Alena wrapped her arms around Rowan as if she never wanted to let go.
“I’m going to miss you,” she admitted. “I know we’ve only known each other for a short time. Even so, you’ve touched my heart. Maybe it is just wanton desire that is making me feel this way. If it is, I don’t care. I say it real, that there is more to us than that. At the same time, I won’t shy away from that desire.”
Rowan hugged her back just as firmly.
“I’m already missing you and you’re not even gone.”
“Well we can stay like this a little while longer.”
“There’s so much I still want to do with you, even if it’s just getting to know you better.”
“I’m the same. I guess we missed a few steps, didn’t we?”
“We’ll have to make up for lost time and missed opportunities when you come to Særis.”
“I wish we could start now.”
“So do I, but we need to be strong. It will make our reunion all the sweeter.”
Rowan blushed slightly at that, mostly because it evoked memories of how sweet Alena tasted. Fortunately, Alena couldn’t see Rowan’s rosy cheeks.
“Stop being a pervert, Rowan,” Alena laughed.
Turns out she didn’t need to see to feel Rowan’s desire.
The two girls parted at that, blessing everyone with mirth filled laughter.
“So what if I am?” Rowan smiled
“I’m not complaining,” Alena replied impishly.
“ALENA!” Ædarik called. “Sorry to interrupt, but it’s time to leave.”
Alena turned away sadly only for Rowan to pull her in for a deep passionate kiss that ended up being a bit more intimate than people were probably expecting.
They were rudely interrupted by Ædarik calling out again. Who did he think he was, ruining their goodbye kiss. To make for it, Rowan gave Alena several more quick kisses before finally saying goodbye and giving her one last kiss.
Rowan and Seres watched them depart. Alena was waving for the entire time that her ship was in view. They would have left sooner but Rowan refused to leave while she could still see the ship. Alas, the sea wall got in the way fairly quickly and Seres was able to drag Rowan away.
An hour or so later, Queen Elarin met Rowan and Seres at the Royal Stables. She presented them each with a ring. As far as Rowan could tell, they were identical with two woven bands of gold and silver set with three different crystals. The middle crystal was a mystery, being completely clear and flawless. The two outer crystals, however, were much more obvious. They were Rowan and Seres’ birth crystals respectively.
“As long as you both are wearing these rings, you will be able to find each other. Furthermore they can be used to alert the other that they are in danger. To this day I regret not sharing a pair with Seres all those years ago.”
“It’s okay, Mother. You couldn’t have known. Plus, it’s not like it would have changed things. I was stripped of all my valuables the moment they captured me.”
“It would have given you a chance.”
“There’s no point in dwelling on it, Your Majesty,” Rowan interjected, “Instead might I ask how they work? Do we just need to wear them or is something else required?”
“Sorry, yes, they need a drop of blood from the other person as well. That will attune them.”
“Seems simple enough.”
Rowan pulled out a knife and gently pricked her finger with it. She let the blood drop onto the ring, only for it to be devoured by the central crystal.
“Is that normal?” Rowan asked.
“Well I guess it’s your turn now, Seres,” said Rowan, handing over the knife.
Seres obliged, though she did so with an almost dangerous lack of confidence. It made Rowan nervous just watching. She really did have her work cut out for her with the upcoming self defence classes if this was how Seres handled a knife.
“Now you can exchange the rings. They’ve been fitted to your ring fingers.
Immediately upon slipping the ring on, Rowan noticed that the central crystal came in contact with the skin. It wasn’t by much, but it was enough to be noticeable despite having a soft underside. That is to say it has zero hard edges instead of actually being soft. If only.
With all that done, Rowan remembered a question she had been meaning to ask Queen Elarin.
“Your Majesty, I was wondering…”
“Why did it take you so long to discover the raiders and their operation?”
Good News Everyone! I’m making progress with my Patreon backlog at a really good pace. With that in mind, Chapter 25 is available now on Patreon with the £5 tier which will also give you access to the uncut version of Chapter 22 (if you join before the end of the month) and all of released world building tidbits. I’m also making significant headway on Chapter 26. I won’t make any promises, but I fully expect it to be ready for patrons this week which would mean I can release Chapter 27 next Monday/Tuesday.