Chapter 28: Bye Bye Baromiir

Seres rose early the next morning. Being woken up by the ring and the fear of losing Rowan had given fuel to her own nightmares. They weren’t as bad as Rowan’s, but there was no escaping it after the many years they had spent in the caves. Seres was even convinced that Amran’s nights had to be at least slightly haunted. The anger from how Rowan had been treated certainly didn’t help and it still flowed through her veins as she made her morning preparations.

Seres set out to find Rowan, only stopping quickly at an early morning street vendor to purchase some breakfast for the two of them. Fortunately the young woman was exactly where she’d left her. Still swinging her blade around in her second set of training clothes. She’d even managed to acquire a few observers during the night. Although they were all wisely keeping their distance.

It was clear from the glistening sweat on Rowan’s brow and the non-existent sandals that she had been dancing with her sword all night long. Seres was impressed. Even for an Ardent it had to be quite the feat. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like it had done much to abate Rowan’s rage. She couldn’t see it in her face, but Seres could feel it pushing on her own anger.

“Can I offer you breakfast and a towel Milady?” Seres quipped to get the attention of the dancing girl.

Rowan didn’t say anything in response. She just finished the last few steps of her dance before sheathing her sword in one fluid motion and hopping over to Seres with voracious intent. Some of the nearby spectators fled in her wake; the rest conveniently realised that they had pressing business to attend to.

Seres wasn’t even sure if Rowan ate her breakfast or simply inhaled it. One moment it was there and the next it wasn’t. At least she didn’t try to eat the towel as well.

With the entertainment at an end, the majority of the remaining spectators shuffled over to the guard house to get ready for the morning shift. Thankfully, most of the people entering the building hadn’t stopped by for the unusual show.

“Do you want to change or?” Seres left her question hanging as Rowan simply raised an eyebrow in response. Seres wasn’t exactly surprised by the answer. It would be a tremendous waste of time to go all the way back to the inn just to get changed, considering it was on the opposite side of town. Seres just hoped the silent nature of the answer meant that Rowan just wasn’t in a chatty mood as opposed to being the calm before the storm.

“Just let me do most of the talking, ok?” Seres asked as the duo approached the building. She was afraid of things going incredibly wrong if Rowan was the one taking charge.

Rowan glanced sideways at her. “Why?” she asked.

“I don’t want you burning the precinct down because of someone saying something stupid to you.”

“Fair.”

That was enough confirmation for Seres, though she still had to grimace as Rowan slammed the doors open.

To Seres’ surprise, instead of reacting to a potential threat the guards inside just glanced at the entrance before continuing on with whatever they were doing. The only person to give them any further acknowledgement than that was the guard on desk duty. He greeted them with, “What can I do for you young ladies this morning?” and a disapproving look in his face.

“We’re here to see the guard captain,” Seres answered firmly.

“I’m afraid the captain isn’t accepting visitors at this time. If you wish to file a report, schedule an appointment, or issue a complaint, please fill out the requisite form. We have a scribe available if your reading and writing skills aren’t up to scratch.” 

“You misunderstood me,” Seres replied with some fire, “that wasn’t a request. If you aren’t going to help us, we’ll just have to go looking for him.”

“We can’t let you do that.”

Seres flashed her signet ring and said, “You can’t stop me. Let’s go, Rowan.” For a brief moment, Seres swore she could smell burning as stepped away.

A few guards tried to stop them as they barrelled though the precinct. The smart ones did not. The observant ones were more preoccupied by the smoldering footprints that Rowan had left behind. She wasn’t about to set the precinct on fire in a fit of rage, but that guard had been as obnoxious as fuck.

They eventually found the guard captain’s office in a small, out of the way place at the back of the precinct. In a mirror of how they had entered the building, Seres denied him the courtesy of knocking and slammed the door open. The captain jumped in surprise, probably unaware of the commotion, and knocking over a large pile of paperwork as he landed.

“What in the blazes? Who are you?” Who let you in here?”

Seres gave him a steely look. “We’ve come to complain regarding two of your men.”

“You’re here to waste my time with a measly complaint? We have forms for dealing with matters like that.”

“Ah yes, how silly of me,” Seres replied sardonically, “I should have just let the issue fall to the annals of bureaucracy. Why didn’t I think of that sooner?”

“I don’t appreciate your tone, Miss.”

Seres stared daggers at him. “And I don’t like being treated like an idiot. This is a serious complaint and it needs to be addressed immediately.”

“Fine! On what grounds are you issuing this complaint?”

“That’s simple. They tried to arrest my companion unlawfully whilst also defending a rapist.”

“Do you…”

Seres interrupted him before he could say anything else. “This is a formal complaint from the Crown, by the way.”

“The Crown?”

It was then that the guard captain saw Seres’ signature eyes and the signet ring on her finger.

“Your Highness! We had word of your return, but never in my wildest dreams did I think you would visit our poor town so soon.”

His tone had completely changed from annoyed and condescending to flattering with a hint of fear.

“I’ve been travelling with my friend and companion, Lady Rowan’efrii Alyris Naliir who was almost raped last night and then summarily mocked, harassed, and threatened by your guards. What have you to say about this?”

“Is this regarding the incident with Master Tamris last night?” the guard captain asked hesitantly. “He was brought in last night less than intact.”

“He’s lucky that’s all he lost,” Rowan muttered.

“That’s the one,” Seres confirmed. “Whilst in a heavily inebriated state, he accosted Lady Rowan in the middle of a busy street and tried to rape her when she resisted his advances. Being an Ardent, she was eventually able to break free and defend herself. In doing so she was forced to draw her sword on him to remove the offending item before things escalated any further. I’m sure you can agree that this was a perfectly reasonable response, considering the circumstances.

“Guardsman Ilum and Guardsman Kasta on the other hand, were inclined to disagree. When they arrived, they acted in ways unbecoming of any person, let alone law keeper. They ogled her, accused her of assault, threatened her with charges of public nudity, and not once did they offer her any comfort or even something that she could cover herself with. Instead, they insisted on leaving her 

“It was only when Lady Rowan was pushed over the edge and she revealed her rank and station that they relented. Had been almost anyone else, your guardsman and the rapist would have gotten away with it. This is simply not acceptable. They should have been there to provide aid and comfort for Rowan regardless of her station.

 I demand that they be stripped of their rank and fined with the money going to help other victims. Furthermore, I will be having your precinct investigated thoroughly for other instances of gross misconduct and malpractice. Are we clear?”

“Yes, Your Highness. Completely.”

“Excellent. Is there anything you’d like to add, Rowan?”

“What else is there to add other than making sure that bastard never attacks anyone ever again? Actually, there is one thing. He will need to be treated, correct?”

“To avoid the area being completely sealed, yes.”

“Then let it be while he is awake and without any pain relief.” Rowan’s eyes were fierce as she gave her verdict.

The guard captain paled slightly. “I’m not sure — are you going to ratify that request, Your Highness?”

“I don’t need to,” Seres answered. “Rowan was granted the titles of Ardent Flame and Lady of Fire by my mother and would thus be well within her right to claim the man’s life. Surely you heard the news? This is the written decree if you don’t believe me.”

The guard captain paled even more. He could almost pass for a corpse. “That won’t be necessary. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“I can’t think of anything. How about you, Rowan?”

“Nope.”

With nothing left to be said, they left the terrified guard captain to his duties and the precinct only little less disruptively than they had entered. 

At Rowan’s suggestion, they stopped by the town’s pitifully small Messenger’s Guild to have Seres’ investigation request delivered to the capital. They paid triple to ensure that the message would before Seres was forced to utilise her original plan of using the official Resonance Crystal channels in Feldran. The receptionist told them it would depart either later that day or the next on one of the boats. Seres would still need to check once they arrived in Feldran, but it meant that the investigation would have time to get rolling.

Once the request had been processed, it was back to the inn. There were still a couple of things that they needed to do before they could leave. Namely, Rowan was in dire need of a bath and a change of clothes. 

Seres handled everything else while Rowan made war on all the dust and grime she had picked up while training. It would take considerably more to wash away what had happened last night, she dared not think of how long that would mark her, but it was a start.

Once she was done with the bath, Rowan started slipping into the riding clothes that Seres had put aside. She completed the ensemble by belting a long curved knife to the back of her waist and a smaller dagger to one of her boots. Finally she attached the badge of the Ardent Flame firmly to her belt.

She hadn’t given it much credence until now. That was probably a mistake. At the same time, Queen Elarin hadn’t exactly been clear in it’s purpose. If anything, Rowan was half convinced that she didn’t actually know its full purpose. She had, after all, given it to Rowan in private and then announced it only a few hours later.

The icing on the cake, however, was what she had said about when it was just the two of them. Rowan could, without too much difficulty, summarise the conversation as, “If you have any problems, show this to such and such and they should be able to assist you,” and, “this is a relic from the first Ardent Flame, so keep it safe.” The former was an obvious use for a symbol of rank. The latter, on the other hand, just seemed like “this is old and important and I don’t know why.”

Part of Rowan wondered if the badge would have been useful with the guards, but in the end she realised it was unlikely that they’d have recognised it. While Rowan was sure the announcement and, by extension, relevant descriptions were being distributed across official channels, the two guards likely weren’t in the know. In which case it would probably have just come across as flashing some fancy jewellery. As time went forwards, however, more people would recognise both her and the badge.

There was also the second line which had been Rowan’s primary reason for keeping it in her packs until it was needed. That had been her way of keeping it safe. Again, Queen Elarin hadn’t given her much to work with other than potentially hint that there might be more to the badge. You don’t get to be an ancient relic and not be special. Just look at Elan Fiir. Then again, it didn’t have a flashy name. She’d need to ask Seres if she could see anything strange about it.

That would need to be a question for the road. To ask it now would just keep them in Baromiir, which was not an option Rowan wanted to consider. Fortunately, all the packing was done so there was nothing left keeping them there.

Author’s Notes: So originally this was a significantly shorter segment of a chapter alongside what is now Chapter 29. However, one of my beta readers suggested that I add more detail and split it in two. This is the result so I hope you like it.

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Chapter 27: On the Road III

Content Warning: See the warning here

“I’m surprised they let us in without so much as a question.”

The two girls were getting ready to start their training. Rowan was amazed at how easily they had been granted access to the local garrison’s training grounds. 

“It probably helps them keep an eye on everything. And it’s not like the garrison is large enough for the yard to be of use most of the time.”

Seres was speaking the truth; the garrison was mainly there to serve as a guard station for the protectors of the town and the surrounding areas, instead of the town hosting a full military presence. As such, it didn’t need to be massive, especially as the town’s overly ambitious architect had included fully functioning walls in their design. Granted, the walls failed rather dramatically as a defensive feature for one very specific reason; there was nothing to prevent access to the town via the river. At least they looked intimidating.

Fortunately, the walls had no bearing on the suitability of the training grounds as a place to, well, train. All in all, it had everything  the pair needed, even if it was on the small side.

“Well I’m not going to complain,” Rowan remarked with a slight twist of her lips before asking the all too important question, “Are you ready?”

Seres glanced at her nervously. “I think so.”

“That doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence.”

“It’s just.” Seres trails off before giving herself a quick look over.

“Yes?”

“Are the clothes really necessary?”

They were wearing knee length tunics with shorts underneath and belted at the waist. Rowan wasn’t exactly sure what the issue was.

“Would you rather be naked?” she asked.

“What? Nooo! It’s just a little bit chilly, is all.”

“Is that it? I thought you were worried about modesty or something.”

“Considering what we were made to wear in the caves, I’m not scared about showing a little skin.”

“Well that’s good at least. Don’t worry about the cold; you’ll warm up quickly enough once we get started. Now stretch!” Rowan shouted the last two words like a Drill Sergeant.

Rowan had to stop herself from laughing to overtly following Seres’ attempts at stretching. Instead she settled with a subtle facepalm, as Seres began to stretch like one might when getting out of bed. Seres, on the other hand, began blushing furiously as she brought her arms down.

“Sorry, I panicked and did the first thing that came to mind.”

“That’s probably on me. I wanted to know how well you would react when surprised and you kinda succeeded. Fancy trying again? I’ll stretch with you.”

After they were fully stretched out, Rowan presented Seres with a buckler and short spear.

“We’ll start with these. The spear should be your go to weapon in most cases, especially when we’re on the road. As for the buckler, it’s easy to carry around so it’s worth practicing with it. Plus, with enough training, you should be able to hold a dagger or a crystal in the same hand.”

“That sounds useful. So how are we doing this?”

Instead of using words to answer, Rowan gave Seres an evil grin and hooked her legs with the butt of a blunted practice spear.

“Ow!” Seres cried out as her backside crashed into the solid ground. “What was that for?”

“Lesson one: proper feet placement. If you don’t stand correctly, a stiff breeze can be enough to destabilise you. Lose your balance and you’re probably dead.”

“Why didn’t you just say that? I could have broken my tail!”

“Because it’s a lesson you need to learn quickly. Trust me, I know it hurts, but the pain will reinforce the lesson better than anything else. Besides, I got bruised all the time when I used to practice.”

“But not anymore?” It was asked with only the hint of a question, as well as a single raised eyebrow, but it was still there.

“Depends on the training, and who I’m doing it with, probably. Now let’s get you up and standing in a good posture. Good. Now you want to start by keeping your feet a shoulder’s width apart and your knees bent slightly. Make sure you have a good bounce to your step. Right, now take the buckler and keep it in front of you.”

Rowan went through the basics step by step to give her a solid foundation. Some further corrections needed to be made once Seres had moved onto learning to thrust and defend against attacks. She had unfortunately taken “always keep your buckler in front of you” to mean block everything, as opposed to parry and deflect.

“You need to remember that you are almost guaranteed to be smaller and lighter than your opponents, so blocking is next to useless. The buckler has the same issue. Instead, you want to try and intercept or catch the opponent’s weapon and deflect it. That way you are using all the energy that your opponent puts into the attack to defend against it. Of course this changes when you have a larger shield…”

Fortunately, Seres was a quick study. She had spent hours upon hours, days upon days, watching people train in the caves. So all she needed was a guiding hand and proper explanations. 

Part of that included the very important lesson of “Do as Rowan says and not as she does.” Rowan’s fighting style was, after all, extremely detached from anything a normal person would typically use, due to it being highly augmented by her nature as an Ardent.

After practicing with the spear for a while, Rowan decided they should also try the saber, then the dagger and finally the bow. Out of the four weapons, the last was by far the hardest for Seres. She struggled even though the bow had a relatively light draw weight. Why? Simply because she had absolutely no experience using her back muscles like that, so she tried to do everything with her arms. The vicious sting of the bow string on exposed flesh didn’t help matters either.

Rowan’s solution to the archery problem was simple, she instructed Seres to loose three arrows while engaging the proper muscles in her back. Rowan corrected the princesses stance as she went to prevent the girl from hurting herself. Though everything Seres made a noticeable mistake, she had to start from the beginning. 

By the time Seres managed to fire the third arrow, she was exhausted and Rowan was disappointed. Not in Seres, mind, but rather in the fact that she had been unable to do any of her own training whilst teaching Seres. She was overflowing with energy as a result and wanted to do something! Anything to relieve the tension in her body, be it training, dancing, fighting, singing, anything. For now, however, she had to tend to her charge.

Maybe I can come back later once Seres is sleeping.

That sounded like a plan. First step, get Seres back to the inn and fed. Going by how much Seres had been sweating, a bath was also very much required; Rowan could smell her from a couple of paces away. At least it wasn’t as bad as it had been in the caves.

It took much longer to get back to the inn than it had to get to the training ground, with Seres ambling along seemingly half asleep and sore. When they finally made it back to the inn, Seres was so exhausted that Rowan had to convince her to take a bath. 

The fact that Seres didn’t dive straight into the bath as soon as they arrived was a particularly terrifying thought, especially as the private bathroom was one of the main selling points of the suite. Rowan was actually afraid that Seres would fall asleep in the bath and drown. Fortunately her fears were alleviated somewhat when Seres was slightly reinvigorated by the water.

*****

After the bath, Seres had a quick bite to eat and promptly passed out, leaving Rowan to her own devices. It was late, but she was still adamant about doing something to tire her body. With that in mind, she left the inn and made her way back to the training grounds, taking only a dagger and Elan Fiir.

It didn’t take long, perhaps ten minutes, for Rowan to catch the pungent aroma of alcohol from somewhere behind her. She dearly hoped the drunk person had something more interesting than her to focus on.

“Hey there, pretty lady!” a male voice with a slight slur called out from behind her.

Rowan ignored them and carried on walking, her hopes shattering.

“Hey, sexy, I’m talking to you.”

This time, the owner of the voice grabbed onto Rowan’s shoulder with his massive hands. and pulled. Having not believed the man would be so bold after being blatantly and deliberately ignored, she hadn’t been braced for it, and she was spun around to face the drunk. He was a giant of a man. Although he was perhaps six feet tall, he was easily two, maybe even three times her weight. He also reeked of ale and stale sweat.

“That’s more like it,” he belched in her face.

Rowan looked him in the eye. “Please let go of me, sir.”

“Now why in the world would I do that, sweet tits? Come on, let me show you a good time. You’ll enjoy it I promise.”

If looks could kill, Rowan would be burning away the man’s soul with the infernal stare of damnation she was directing at him. He was really starting to piss her off. Rowan liked it when people found her attractive. However, she did not like this, nor would she stand for it.

“Let go of me, sir. I won’t ask again.”

“And what are you going to do about it? You must be freezing dressed like that, wearing practically nothing. It can’t be good for a beauty like yourself, so come here and let me warm you up.”

“I’m warm enough, thank you.”

I’m an instant, Rowan grabbed his arm and let the anger burn. The man roared in pain or perhaps, anger. 

“You bitch!”

He grabbed Rowan by the collar with his other hand and picked her up before immediately slamming her to the ground. She was so angry that she had failed to immediately realise she was being attacked, delaying her own reactions and counter. 

She hit the ground hard, her head cracking against the paved stone floor, giving her a slight concussion as her thoughts clouded over and became sluggish.

He was on top of her in seconds. The full weight of hips bore painfully down on her thighs, just below her crotch as his legs hooked under to lock her in place. With the same hand that he had used to slam Rowan down, he took hold of both of Rowan’s arms and forced them above her head, adjusting his weight so there was a lot of pressure pinning them. With his other hand he started ripping off her clothes. All while Rowan couldn’t focus.

As the concussion faded and Rowan came to her senses, fear joined her anger as she did everything she could to stoke the fires of her rage into a blazing inferno. Unfortunately, terror was also seeping in, making it difficult to focus on her rage as it started to overwhelm her mind. What made it even worse was it was clear he wouldn’t even bother trying to move her off the middle of the road before raping her, in full view of the dozen or so people currently passing by. If he would just get off her she could overpower him. 

What if she couldn’t fight back? She could barely move, her muscles were failing and she was painfully aware of everything he was doing and that everyone else on the street was just watching. Despite being surrounded, she was alone with this man.

Where are you Rina?

That was unfair. Her sister didn’t need to suffer alongside Rowan. Her cries were probably bad enough as it was. Rowan knew that Rina could hear them, the emotional bridge between them was too strong.

Of course, none of that mattered to the man. Neither did he care or even seem to notice that Rowan was burning his hand; she could see it in his eyes. Like her, he was a vehicle for rage, only his was fueled by lust, alcohol, and adrenaline. The difference was he was allowing his rage to consume him, unlike Rowan who was faltering from fear.

He’s too strong.

It was only as he started groping and licking her that the people in the background finally started shouting for the guard. Although that was all they did. No-one dared to involve themselves further. And Rowan feared it was too little too late. There was no way that the guards would arrive in time to help her. 

The man worked his way down Rowan’s body, right up until he arrived at her shorts. He wasted no time tearing them off with horrifying intent before immediately shoving his fingers inside her.

It hurts!

Rowan was crying. There was nothing she could do. Even the heat of her anger wasn’t enough to faze him in the face of the adrenaline surging through his veins, washing away all sense of pain and rational thought.

As he shifted his weight to pull his member out, and got into position, Rowan saw her chance and hope started to overwhelm her fear. Her legs were free’d and as he focused on licking his fingers for a brief second of perverted pleasure. She pulled her knees to her chest, leaving her completely exposed to everyone watching, but granting her the leverage she needed. As he leaned into her and she felt his head press against her, she pushed her shins against his chest and extended her legs with all her might, flipping him over his head.

Free of his immense weight pinning her down, Rowan was able to flip up onto her feet. In one smooth motion she drew Elan Fiir and cut down the solitary tree that was his manhood.

Rowan was panting from the exertion. Her head was killing her and she could feel a slight trickle of blood running down her legs from his jagged nails. He had completely destroyed her clothes. No-one had come to her aid. They only stood there and watched. Horrified.

“Stop right there!”

Two guards were rushing onto the scene with their spears pointed at Rowan. Apparently they saw a woman with a sword and not the victim of an attempted rape.

“Drop the weapon, Miss, you’re under arrest.”

Rowan stared at them incredulously. “Are you fucking serious?” she said, her fear finally fading completely as anger once again became raging inferno fueled by shame and disgust.

“As you have been caught in the act of clearly assaulting Master Tamris with a lethal weapon, yes.”

“The fucker tried to rape me you dick-addled, cock munching, thunder cunts.”

“If you were being raped, how did you manage to draw your sword then?”

Rowan couldn’t believe a thing they were saying.. “Is that the only thing you can see, are you completely blind to everything else or just stupid?”

“We’re trying to be respectful by not looking at anything else you’re displaying, Miss.”

“I should also mention that public nudity is agaisn’t the law and another charge you will have to answer for.”

It was clear that they knew nothing of respect and were bullshitting for all they were worth from the way their wandering eyes studied her every nook and cranny.

“For fucks sake, you eejits. My clothes are in ruins because that bastard ripped them off of me.”

“Do you have any means of corroborating that story, Miss?”

The guards sickened Rowan almost as much as the drunk. They made her feel ashamed with their questions and their obviously artificial doubts, trying to paint their friend as the victim. As well as disgusted by how they were clearly ogling her despite their excuses. 

Rowan wanted to both cry and let her fists take her anger out on them because of how they were treating her. All the while they refused to even offer her anything to preserve her dignity, but the tears didn’t come. Her pain and sorrow, while immense, could not compete with the blazing sun inside her.

“You mean other than the tattered remains of my clothes, any number of witnesses, or the fact that he had his dick out? Or perhaps you don’t think rape is a crime?”

“Of course not, Miss. However, if no-one is willing to speak up on your behalf, we’ll still need to bring you in for questioning.” Guard number one told me while guard number two tried to sneakily narrow his eyes and glare at each witness without my noticing. Before wiping his head back to face me at my next words.

“So that you can have a go yourselves? You should be glad I haven’t dishonourably discharged both of you right where you stand.”

“You can’t do that.”

Rowan looked at the second, quieter guard as he spoke with fire in his eyes.

“Can’t I now?”

“No, Miss. Only a superior officer, the lord or lady of the land, a Lord or Lady of Fire, or a member of the royal family can do that.”

“And there’s no way someone like that would be flaunting her stuff in…”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP OR, GODDESS HELP ME, I’LL RIP YOUR THROATS OUT! I AM ROWAN’EFRII ALYRIS NALIIR, ARDENT FLAME OF MIDIRIS AND LADY OF FIRE BY DECREE OF QUEEN ELARIN!”

As if to punctuate her booming voice, Rowan’s infernal rage finally exploded out of her, igniting the very air surrounding her. The two guards and everyone else paled in the light of her fury.

“Now that I have your attention, I demand both of your names so that I can lodge a formal complaint with your commanding officer. I’ll present him with my badge of office and the written decree from her majesty. Until then, arrest this man.”

Not caring to see any further reactions, Rowan strode past the guards and made her way back to the inn. People were staring at her the entire time. She ignored them and the radiating heat of her anger kept them away. It was only when Seres came running down the street that she finally started to calm down..

“Rowan!” she called.

Rowan looked at her, somewhat confused. “Seres? What are you doing here?”

“My ring woke me up. When I noticed you’d gone out I panicked and came running as fast I could.”

“While I’m glad someone thought to come to my aid, you really shouldn’t be running into danger.”

“What happened to you? Does it have anything to do with the state your clothes are in?” Seres asked with a look of rage on her face.

“A drunk guy wanted to have sex with me,” Rowan spat, before she recounted in detail what had just happened to her sister in all but blood.

Rowan was crying as she recalled what happened, the tears evaporating quickly from the embers of her anger. 

“I managed to throw him off of me just in time and then I drew my sword on him. He may now be missing a body part. When the guards arrived, they attempted to blame me for everything and tried to arrest me. They refused to acknowledge the truth in front of their faces and were throwing excuses at me the entire time as they ogled me.”

“That’s — I’m going to have those guards stripped of their rank and the man hanged.”

“We can deal with them tomorrow. And death is too good for that bastard. Let him live without his cock instead. Can we go back to the inn now, please? I need to get some fresh clothes so that I can work some of this stress away while training.”

“Of course.”

Rowan didn’t sleep that night. She dared not risk the nightmares. Not after what had happened. Instead she danced with Elan Fiir until her body ached. After that, she sang a hollow lament for everyone that had suffered and continued to do so.

Author’s Note: The first half of this chapter was really easy and fun to write. The second part? Not so much. It is an extremely painful subject matter for me. At the same time, I needed to show that Rowan isn’t invincible. Even with her incredible powers, she can still be taken down, especially when she’s caught by surprise. I might have been able to do it differently, but it wouldn’t have had the same weight. With that said, I hope you all enjoyed this chapter in spite of the dark subject matter.

Previous Chapter

Chapter 26: On the Road II

Rowan woke up screaming. The nightmares were finally back in full force. Flashes of pain and suffering so real, so visceral, that she could feel them now. She had dreamed of the eclipse in vivid detail, only every mistake, every moment of terror was punctuated by the touch of the Silent Sisters. Rowan’s back roared in agony. 

That isn’t what woke Rowan up, however. Not even reliving her mother’s death was enough to grant her bitter release from the torment. No, that came from seeing Tehri broken and on the verge of death. She had been too late. She had failed. There was nothing she could do other than hold onto Tehri as the light faded from her eyes.

It felt so real. The pain. The loss. All of it. Rowan’s chest heaved as adrenaline continued to flood through her veins. She had to do something and she had to do it fast before her emotions got the better of her.

Rowan rushed out with Elan Fiir, a belt of knives, and a reflex bow with a quiver of arrows, practically her entire arsenal. The only thing she was missing from it was her short spear and buckler.

Alas, in her hurry to leave the tent, Rowan forgot to close the flap, exposing the insides to the autumn chill. If the screaming hadn’t woken Seres up, the sudden cold will. 

Rowan on the other hand, was,  more likely than not, significantly less bothered by it. That isn’t to say she couldn’t feel it; her feet in particular were suffering. She was only wearing underwear and a small night tunic, after all. No, the reason for her surprising tolerance was that a little cold was nothing next to her nightmares. Dealing with that particular horror took precedence over chilly toes.

Step one – cut down a tree. That seemed like it would be a good way to vent some trauma. Rowan stopped herself just before Elan Fiir bit into the bark of a particularly large silver pine. Already she was having second thoughts. The tree had done nothing wrong, and while she knew that it wouldn’t be able to damage Elan Fiir, she was less confident she could cut all the way through something quite so thick. Even if she could, there was the very real possibility that it would fall into the clearing and onto the tent.

Reluctantly, Rowan sheathed Elan Fiir and instead started stringing the bow. Even with her enhanced strength, the reflex nature of the bow made it somewhat awkward. She could have chosen the lighter, pre-strung recurve that she had brought with them to teach Seres. It would have made things significantly easier for her, but at the same time, it would have made things too easy; the recurve had a practically non-existent draw weight after all. The reflex on the other hand was on the cusp of being a war bow for a fraction of the size (it was no wonder that it was designed by a Ferran).

Once the bow was fully strung, Rowan belted Elan Fiir and a quiver to her waist before making her way out of the copse of silver pine so that she could loose arrows in the open grasslands. It would mean she’d need to travel further to recollect the arrows, but it also meant that she didn’t risk breaking any of the trees. Thankfully, she was still close enough to see or hear if anything out of sorts happened in the camp.

On the seventh arrow, Rowan heard movement from the tent. She snapped around with the bow at full draw, ready to shoot any trespassers in their tracks. It was only after she saw Seres’ head pop out of the open flap. 

Seres had taken the time to wrap herself in a dressing gown before stepping out. Rowan saw Seres looking around, no doubt looking for her. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take much time for Seres to find her considering Seres’ excellent night vision or the fact that Rowan was a beacon of Resonance. 

Clearly concerned, Seres made her way to Rowan’s side. 

“Are you okay?” she asked, “I heard you screaming.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you,” Rowan replied glumly.

“What’s wrong? You can tell me.”

“I had a nightmare. A bad one.”

“It must have been. What happened? They’ve never made you scream like that.”

“I saw Tehri broken and dying in my arms. I saw my failure.”

Tears started to well in Rowan’s eyes.

“You haven’t failed.”

“Then why has no-one seen her? It’s been five years!”

The dams of her eyes gave way and the waterworks began in earnest. Seres stepped in to give her a warm embrace. 

“There, there, Rowan,” Seres said softly, stroking Rowan’s back. “We’ll find her.”

Rowan dropped the bow and hugged Seres back, crying loudly into her shoulder.

After a couple of minutes, the weight of Rowan’s emotions brought them both to their knees. Even so, this was a much better way for Rowan to vent her feelings as opposed to aimless training.

Almost half an hour later, the tears finally stopped flowing. Rowan’s eyes were raw, her throat coarse, and her nose red. 

“I think I may have ruined your dressing gown,” Rowan apologised with a rueful smile, looking down at the war zone of snot and tears on Seres’ shoulder.

“Think nothing of it,” Seres replied softly, “It’ll wash.”

“But…”

“No buts, Rowan. You needed that. I will ask, however, that we return to the tent. Now isn’t the time to be training, the ground is hard as a rock and you’re cold to the touch. We can train together tomorrow if you want. You need to start teaching me, after all.”

It took Seres pointing it out for Rowan to realise that, yes, she was in fact, freezing. Barely moving while half naked in the middle of a late autumn night didn’t exactly do much to keep one warm, after all.

Rowan nodded her acceptance of Seres’ request and picked the bow up as she clambered back to her feet. As Seres started to walk back to the camp, Rowan was quickly reminded that she was missing something.

“What about the arrows?” she asked.

“How many are out there?” Seres said, turning to give Rowan a contemplatory look.

“Seven.”

“That’s too many to just abandon,” Seres sighed.

Rowan nodded.

In response, Seres started walking off into the darkness with a confident smile. 

“Let me help you find them,” she called back confidently. “Two pairs of eyes are better than one.”

“Um, Seres…”

“Yes?” Seres replied, turning back slightly.

While maintaining the most neutral expression that she could manage with her tear ruined face, Rowan pointed in a completely different direction. 

“The arrows are over there.”

Rowan couldn’t be 100% sure, but she just knew that Seres was blushing at that moment.

*****

They arrived in the town of Baromiir just in time for a late lunch, the next day. Baromiir was the first of the three major settlements along the Telma River. Overall, it wasn’t a particularly exceptional town. There was nothing in the way of unique or specialty resources to set it apart from anywhere else. 

If it wasn’t for one very specific fact, Rowan doubted it would have ever grown to be more than a village. The fact in question? Distance and trade. Baromiir was a days travel by boat from Telmaris, the next major town, Like Baromiir, Telmaris was a days travel from Feldran, the mountain city that would mark the end of the first leg of their journey. 

Both Baromiir and Telmaris served as waypoints for trade to and from Feldran. It was instantly clear how Baromiir served that particular purpose. Anyone that spoke Midiran would know before they even reached the town. True to its name, Baromiir featured an exceptionally tall bridge that spanned the entire width of the river. It was easily tall enough to let a mast sail under it, and it also connected the two halves of the city along with a ferry service. The town also had several places to moor a boat on either side of the river.

The two girls went past the bridge as  they made their way to an inn on the far side of town which had been kindly recommended by one of the guards. Rowan marvelled as she saw the bridge up close. She had been too young to fully appreciate it the first time that she had seen it. Now she had no such issues. The full length of the bridge spanned an impressive chunk of the town’s width and even then, it was ridiculously steep. It also had two side ramps that turned away from the main ramp to allow access from the river road. 

Both Rowan and Seres saw countless people using the bridge, giving them a solid idea of what effect it could have on those that used it every day. One such example came in the form of a rather anomalous Ferran man who was pushing a cart up one of the ramps. For the most part, he looked fairly normal with the exception of his legs which were the size of tree trunks.

“I didn’t even know that was possible,” Seres muttered quietly upon seeing it.

“Tell me about it,” Rowan replied, not even trying to hide her horrified awe.

After the bridge, they arrived at their destination, “The Three-Eyed Hunter”, a rather large inn with an attached stables. To the locals, it probably seemed like a fairly innocent name for an inn. To Rowan and Seres, however, it was mildly terrifying, especially after they saw the sign. It seemed as if the owners had named the inn after the Vhoraks, one of the most voracious predators in the world. The horror of it all was made even worse by the rumbling of their stomachs.

“Shall we?” Rowan asked in attempt to hide the ferocious roaring, her face rosy from embarrassment.

“We really should,” Seres replied.

With their minds set, they rode towards the stables and handed off their horses to the stablemaster. They were then free to enter the establishment, and they didn’t even need to carry their packs. As part of the stabling service, a porter was provided. With that in mind, they took their first steps towards the inn’s entrance.

As soon as they walked through the door they were greeted by a plump Ferran lady with an extremely bright and energetic smile.

“Welcome to The Three-Eyed Hunter,” the woman said cheerfully, “I’m the owner, Klei. How can we help?”

“Hi, I’m Rowan and this is Seres. We were hoping to stay the night and get some food.”

“Of course! We have a few different tiers of room available. From the way you are both dressed and all the stuff you have with you, I won’t even suggest the communal rooms. That leaves the private rooms and the suites.”

“Private will be fine,” Seres replied.

“And will you be needing two rooms or just one? You aren’t lovers are you? It’s totally fine if you are. We just ask that you aren’t too loud if you decide to have sex in the wee hours. Only the suites have noise absorption crystals.”

“We’re not lovers, no,” Seres laughed while Rowan fumbled around. 

“I thought as much. You look too much like sisters or something.”

“Close enough,” Rowan muttered.

“We get that a lot,” Seres clarified. “And we only need one room.”

“We only have doubles, if that’s okay? 

“I think we can manage with…”

“We should get a suite,” Rowan interjected.

“Oh?” Klei and Seres asked simultaneously.

“I’ve been suffering from nightmares,” Rowan explained to Klei. “Last night it was do bad that I woke up screaming. You said the suites have sound absorption crystals. Less risk of disturbing your other guests.”

“That’s a good point,” Seres admitted. “What other facilities to the suites come with?”

“A bedroom, a communal space, a restroom, and a bathroom with full plumbing at the very least.”

A the mention of a bath, the two girls shared a look and said, “Why didn’t you start with that?”

Within moments they were renting a suite for the night. Not long after that they were in the common room feasting on succulent roast lamb, rosemary potatoes, feather greens, and carrots cooked in red wine. By the end of it, Rowan had almost forgotten that she was supposed to start teaching Seres how to defend herself. She eventually concluded that lessons would need to wait until after their meal had settled.

Previous Chapter <-> Next Chapter

Chapter 25: On the Road I

Rowan gave the Queen a pointed look which was returned by her own piercing sea green gaze.

“Why did it take you so long to discover the raiders and their operation?”

“That’s a good question,” Queen Elarin responded, “I’m surprised you hadn’t already asked it.”

“It hadn’t crossed my mind until yesterday.”

“Well the answer is mult-faceted. First and foremost, they primarily acted on the other islands and the northern and southern sides of this island, far from the capital. The further you get from the heartlands, the more policing falls on the local Lords, garrisons and governors. When we investigated after the fact, we found clear signs of corruption and bribery.”

Both Rowan and Seres were disgusted at the notion.

“Furthermore, they were significantly less overt with their strikes, either hitting caravans or small villages.”

“How do you know all this?” Seres asked. Rowan wondered as well; this was a significant amount of detail.

“We were lucky. One of the governors kept a full set of reports on all the attacks that were in range of his city and jurisdiction so that he could extort more bribes from the raiders. The rest of what we have is mostly extrapolation and inference with a splash of eye witness accounts.”

“Makes sense,” Rowan sighed frustratedly.

“This all led to only a single report ever making it to the capital before the eclipse five years ago. Roughly nine years ago, we were informed of a group of raiders based on Færich Lan.”

“I remember that!” Rowan interjected suddenly. 

“You do?” Seres asked quizzically with the aid of a raised brow from Queen Elarin.

“Aye! Tyris missed my eleventh birthday because of it.”

“I’m sorry about that,” Queen Elarin apologised. “They were dealt with swiftly. All in all, they were probably less than a tenth of the full operation.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they were meant to be a red herring of some sort,” Rowan posited.

“If they were even affiliated with them,” Seres added.

“Indeed. After that, it wasn’t until the lead up to the eclipse that they started to act more boldly. Then they kidnapped Seres and hit Næmyris. Only then were we in a position to start investigating. It took the better part of a year to have enough intelligence to strike.”

Both Rowan and Seres needed a moment to process everything after that. It was a lot to take in. Eventually, Rowan spoke up again.

“Were the people taking bribes punished?” 

“Yes.”

“Thank you.”

“Hopefully such tragedy will never again befall our fair nation.”

“Truly.”

“Are you done with your questions, Rowan?” Seres asked.

“I am, yeah.”

“We should probably get going if we want to make good time.”.

“Right. Thanks again, Queen Elarin, and goodbye.”

“Farewell, Rowan. Please keep my daughter safe.”

“I will.”

“Goodbye, Mother. We should be back before the Solstice if it doesn’t snow too heavily.”

“Farewell my dearest Seres. If ever you need more protection on your travels, you know who to ask.”

“I’m sure Rowan will be more than enough.”

With the final goodbyes said, the two girls lead their mounts and pack horses out of the stables before mountain up. Rowan was unsteady at first, she’d never ridden a horse before, but she didn’t make a complete fool of herself which was something at least.

*****

The start of the journey was largely uneventful. Both Rowan and Seres were wearing riding gear instead of any obvious finery so most people only gave them a passing look if anything. Life in the city was a busy one after all so it wasn’t that surprising. On top of that, Rowan was a complete stranger to most people and Seres hadn’t been seen in the city in over five years. Right now the only thing that gave her away were her eyes and they weren’t exactly the first thing you noticed when you looked at someone.

Once they were outside the city, they picked up the pace, going at a canter instead of a walk. They tried trotting at first, but Rowan couldn’t get a handle on it. Fortunately, only Seres saw her fall the first time.

“Oww ow ow ow,” she cried out as she landed on her side.

“Are you okay?” Seres asked. “That looked like it hurt.”

“I’m fine,” answered Rowan with a soft note of pain as she rolled back up, thankful that Elan Fiir was attached to the horse instead of her. On the flipside, said horse was now running away.

“Rubbing your shoulder like that isn’t very convincing.”

“I’m more concerned about the horse. Give me a second.”

Without any more warning, Rowan bolted across the grasslands to catch her mount. Fortunately, Rowan was more than a match for a horse in terms of speed. Ten leagues an hour? Easy. As she was, Rowan was pushing twelve. The downside was that she was significantly lacking in stamina, at least compared to a horse. Still, this was a sprint, not a marathon and Rowan was able to catch up in no time.

“Easy, girl,” she whispered in an attempt to calm the mare down.

Instead of letting Rowan stroke her, the mare reared her head and gave Rowan a toothy neigh followed by what could only be called the smuggest chortle in existence. 

“Dinnae give me that,” said Rowan with a hint of annoyance.

The horse of course had every intention of giving Rowan ‘that’ in the form of an extremely loud snorting right in her face.

“What do you mean you want an apple?” Rowan wasn’t actually sure that’s what she wanted if anything, she just knew that horses apparently liked apples. From the horse’s reaction it seemed like a good guess as she nodded intently.

“I don’t have any, but we have some nice tasty treats back with Seres and the other horses.”

At the mention of treats, the horse was instantly off. If Rowan hadn’t been holding onto the reins it would have been another chase.

“Wait! I need to get on first. Please don’t shake me off.”

The horse just gave her a look that said, ‘That was entirely your fault and we both know it.” Thankfully she didn’t do anything to make things difficult for Rowan as she mounted back up. That is nothing she could control; being notably taller than her rider didn’t count.

Once Rowan had both feet in the stirrups and her hand on the reins, the horse went from nothing to a full gallop within seconds. If she weren’t an Ardent, Rowan would have been thrown off like a ragdoll.

Seres was laughing when Rowan finally regained control. To add insult to injury, the horse joined in.

“I think she likes you,” Seres giggled.

“She’s a menace,” Rowan huffed. “I’m half convinced that she’s an Ardent in disguise.” 

“That would be something. Are you sure you can handle her? The stablemaster would have given you a more mellow horse if you’d told him that it was your first time.”

“It’ll be fine,” Rowan said, rolling her eyes. “Nami’s just a little feisty is all. Speaking of which, do you have any of those sugar cubes on you?”

“I do, yes.”

Seres pulled out three brilliant white cubes of sugar from a small pouch at her waist. One was given to each of the horses from Rowan’s feisty chestnut and Seres’ graceful grey to the sturdy bay that was their pack horse. Nami was demanding another before she was even finished.

“You can have more later,” Seres told her with a mischievous smile. “If you behave, that is.”

Even from her saddle, Rowan could feel the indignance behind the look that Nami gave Seres.

“Are you sure she isn’t an Ardent?” Rowan asked. “Horses shouldn’t be this emotive.”

“Don’t be silly,” Seres giggled.

“I’m not,” Rowan objected. “Just look at her.”

“Intelligence was her Gift from the Goddess, that’s all.”

“Why couldn’t it have been grace or vitality?”

“Are you sure you want to say that while you’re on her back?”

“No,” Rowan admitted, “it’s just…”

“Just what?”

“Nothing.”

There was no helping it. If anything, Nami was the perfect horse for Rowan and she couldn’t exactly begrudge her for having the one Gift that made her more intelligent than the average horse. Maybe if horses had as many potential gifts as humans and the other humanoid races, they were limited to three, just like animals. 

“Rowan? Are you okay? You’re staring off into space.”

“I was?”

“For a good minute.”

“Well… I think I’m okay. I was just thinking.”

“If you’re sure.”

“Yeah, don’t mind me. Instead, you should mount back up. It’s still a while off to the next village.

*****

They continued to travel west by way of the road that ran alongside the Telma River. It had been years since Rowan had last travelled down this road and it was just as beautiful and viridescent as she remembered. There was lush green grass and wildflowers. To add to the picturesque scenery were nice white fluffy clouds, one of which Rowan swore looked just like a fenrabbit.

On the first day they took a gamble on reaching a village before nightfall and hoping they could find shelter there instead of looking for somewhere to set up camp. They were cutting it close as the sun had just dipped below the horizon when the village came to view. Granted, calling it a village was rather generous. It was more of a hamlet, little more than a dozen or so buildings.

According to Seres, it had been originally settled to take advantage of a ford. Keyword being originally as earthquake had diverted another river into the Telma causing water levels to rise by more than a foot. Now they have a ferry instead. 

Of course, with so few buildings, an Inn was out of the question. On the flipside, literally everyone offered their full hospitality and that was without them even disclosing their identities. Seres refused to impose that much, however, which led to Rowan making a compromise with one of the farmers by means of their barn. In the end, Seres agreed to the compromise, albeit reluctantly on the condition that the farmer accept a silver link for his troubles.

The barn ended up being surprisingly comfortable, especially as the farmer had said that they could sleep on the hay. Alas, the comfort at the cost of mutual shame or perhaps a new fashion trend as the hay had managed to practically become one with their hair. It ended taking the better part of the morning to brush out every last bit. 

Meanwhile Nami munched smugly away at her breakfast, chortling whenever the girls hit a snag. Eventually, however, they were able to leave. Unfortunately, the further they got on the second day, the more obvious it became that they wouldn’t reach the town. Eventually Rowan called for a stop.

“I think we need to make a choice, Seres. We could push on past sunset. If we do, we should make it to the town and we aren’t hurting for night vision. At the same time, it isn’t really fair on the horses. Alternatively we could find a place to set up camp and then take it easy tomorrow.”

“Wouldn’t we need to make up for lost time if we did that?”

“If we were in a rush, yeah, but a single day doesn’t matter that much.”

Rowan wasn’t being entirely truthful when she said that. She wanted to get to Næmyris as soon as possible. At the same time she didn’t want to injure the horses. They were kind of screwed if either of them went lame or threw a shoe after all.

“If you say so,” Seres replied after some thought. “In that case, the copse of trees a mile or so back looked promising. And it’s close to the river so we can bathe.”

“You want to bathe in the open? And I thought I was bold.”

“Stop that,” Seres pouted, “it’s not like they’ll be anyone to spy on us so it should be fine.”

“Well I don’t really mind. I’m just surprised is all.”

“We’re still going to wait until its pitch black.”

“Of course. Shall we?”

“Yes, let’s.”

The copse ended up being a perfect place to set up camp. Out of the way and well sheltered but still close to the river and the road. There was also space to set up a campfire without threatening the trees. With that said there were a few hiccups when it came to setting everything up. That is to say that the tent was an absolute nightmare. Even Nami refrained from snickering at the whole ordeal.

When it was finally over, the two girls collapsed to the ground in a moment of cathartic exhaustion. 

“That had no right to be that difficult,” Seres huffed.

“Are you sure they didn’t give us any better instructions?”

“That’s what I found in the packs.”

“It read like it was made with an architect in mind.”

“You can say that again.”

“Hey, Seres?”

“Yeah?”

“I was wondering, why did you pack so many crystals?”

“Oh that? Let me show you.”

“Let you what now?”

Seres rolled her eyes. “Just watch,” she said as she got up and walked over to her packs. From inside one of them she pulled out a rose tinted crystal with veins of blue. Rowan recognised it as a Thermal Resonance Crystal, specifically a flame bearing one.

“You see, a lesser known ability of my eyes is this.” 

Seres started conjuring a small flame, drawing it from the crystal and let it dance over the palm of her hand.

“How are you even?” Rowan started.

“I’m able to Resonate with crystals and channel their power. My Gift helps as well.”

“Gift of the Soul?”

“It lets me strengthen Resonance in the living, be it people, trees, or animals.”

“Animals I can understand, but trees?”

“It isn’t easy, but yes, I can. More importantly, I think it’s time to put this fire to use.”

This time Seres just casually tossed the flame into the fire pit they had made.

“There has to be a catch?” Rowas asked.

“It takes a lot of energy and once I release my control I can’t regain it. Take the campfire for example. I can’t do anything about it now.”

“How did I not know this was a thing?”

“Probably because those that do know about it think it’s a myth so it isn’t really that well documented. On that note, there’s something I need to thank you for.”

“Oh?”

“Lord Fein wanted to know if it was true so he tried desperately to get me to tell him. When you made your deal with him, you stopped them from torturing it out of me.”

“Well I’d do it again and again if I had to.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it. You gave me a reason to live, after all, to not give in. If anything I should be thanking you. Now let’s make dinner before I start crying and then we can go bathe.”

Seres nodded affirmatively. 

“Right!”

Previous Chapter <-> Next Chapter

Chapter 24: Goodbye

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.

“It’s Rowan.”

“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?”

“Oh?”

“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.

“Rude!”

“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?”

“You do?”

“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.”

“Until then.”

“Until then.”

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?”

“For sure.”

“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.

“No promises.”

The two girls parted at that, blessing everyone with mirth filled laughter.

“You’re incorrigible.”

“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.

“Perfectly.”

“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…”

“Yes?”

“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.

Previous Chapter

Chapter 23: The Next Step

So i did a poll to see what to do while I build up my backlog of early access chapters for patrons. With the results in, my plan is to release a chapter a week until I have at least 5 patron chapters. Then depending on how my pace is going, I’ll add in a couple more chapters to my buffer zone. This is to avoid what happened before when my mental health took a massive nose dive. With that said, enjoy the chapter.

“Ah ah choo.”

Rowan woke up sneezing loudly from a wandering tail tickling her nose. Not exactly the most romantic start to the morning after your first time. Alas, there was no helping it as Alena had found her way into the nook of Rowan’s armpit, and while she was fast asleep, purring away, her tail had a mind of its own. 

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, Rowan didn’t need to be a tail whisperer to know that the rogue tail wanted to play. It was almost as if it was enacting whatever dreams Alena was having at the time. After rudely waking Rowan up it decided that she was much in need of more tickling. She tried to escape without waking Alena up, only for Alena to nuzzle in closer. 

It was incredibly adorable and incredibly inconvenient. In the end, Rowan had no choice other than to just lie there and enjoy the view. Not that she could really complain; it was a very nice view after all. 

While looking at Alena’s sleeping face, Rowan started to stroke her hair. Unfortunately, she was unable to do the heart fluttering manoeuvre of pushing a lock of hair behind her ear like she had done all those years ago with Kiriin. Guilt flashed momentarily for thinking back to a lost love which in turn brought a hint of sadness. It only lasted a second, however, as Alena’s ears twitched in the most adorable fashion believable and as Rowan continued to stroke, Alena unconsciously reciprocated with purring.

After a few minutes of perfect bliss, Rowan heard someone enter the apartments. A knocking on the door soon followed.

“Lady Rowan?”

It was Avra, the maid.

Rowan panicked. She hadn’t noticed before, not consciously at least, that neither she or Alena were being granted any modesty by the wayward covers and they weren’t exactly dressed either. To make matters worse, the covers were well out of reach.

“Just a second,” Rowan called out before whispering an apology to Alena.

Rowan then enacted her ‘genius’ spur of the moment plan to achieve modesty. She stretched out in an attempt to grab onto the covers with her toes. Her foot started to cramp from the unnatural way she was using it. Thankfully though, the discomfort was worth it as she took hold of the covers and started to bring them. Unfortunately, doing so required more disruptive movements and Alena started to stir. Rowan then hurried to get them both covered.

Now sitting up with the linen sheets loosely covering her chest, Rowan called out to Avra again. 

“You can come in now.”

“Right away.”

And to her word, Avra swiftly entered the room, looking the very image of professionalism. 

“How can I help?” Rowan asked?

“First of all, you and your guest have been invited to break fast with Her Majesty and the rest of the Royal family.

Not just Seres, Rowan thought to herself, it’s been a while since that happened.

“Secondly, I have arranged a change of clothes for your guest. I do not believe that she would rather not wear a ball gown to breakfast.

“How did you know she’d be here?”

“I know everything about those I serve.”

That wasn’t at all ominous.

“Furthermore, the whole palace is aware of your exploits from last night. Milady wasn’t exactly subtle about the whole ordeal.”

Ominous tidings forgotten. Now only blood red embarrassment remained.

“It is fortunate that rest of the Sunfall Apartments are without guests at this moment in time. I fear they would have had an even more intimate understanding of your late night activities.”

We weren’t that loud, were we?

“Finally, Her Highness requested that I  tease you on her behalf. I believe you have been sufficiently teased.”

Avra let Rowan process the foul betrayal as Alena finally made her presence known. With her back to Avra and her face towards Rowan, she stretched and gave out the biggest yawn. It was almost as if she was emulating a lion’s roar, except the sound she made was just the cutest. Then in a moment of inspiration, Alena settled down from her stretch, pulling down the sheets and, with her mouth still wide open, she nommed on Rowan’s exposed breast.

“I believe that is my cue to take my leave,” said Avra as Rowan once again turned crimson.

*****

With Alena dressed in one of her more casual dresses and Rowan in a tunic which was practically a minidress and pair of leggings, the two girls made their way to the Dawn Wing for breakfast.

“Is it really okay for me to be here?” Alena asked.

Rowan rolled her eyes at that.

“The queen invited you as well. Who cares if it’s as a plus one?”

“But I’m only a lesser noble, all things considered.”

“And?”

“It’s not proper.”

“It’s no less proper than me being there.”

“You do realise that you were given a title on par with an earl, maybe even a duke, last night, just without the land, though I imagine that will come later.”

Rowan wasn’t sure exactly how she was supposed to process that information. She knew that the titles were a big deal, but not that much of a big deal.

“Of course, that’s just one of your new titles. The other is a bigger mystery. As far as I’m aware, there hasn’t been someone granted the title of Ardent Flame in over a thousand years.”

“Well I didn’t have those titles when I first met the Queen. And I’m definitely not worthy of being the Ardent Flame if it’s so prestigious.”

“Yet here we are.”

“Well as Ardent Flame, I say it’s okay.”

“But…”

“No buts. You don’t get to have sex with me and then chicken put at breakfast.”

Alena didn’t have a response to that. Instead, Rowan took her hand softly into her own and walked forwards with confidence. 

The rest of the trip took place without much in the way of complaint from Alena. If anything, it was largely uneventful with the exception of garnering a few looks and that was more due to Rowan than there being a couple of girls walking romantically hand in hand.

A maid was waiting for them at the entrance to the large private dining room of the Royal family. She curtsied to them before opening the door and announcing their arrival. 

On entering, Rowan was completely unsurprised to see Seres, Queen Elarin, Princess Elia and Prince Rikta. What was more surprising is that they weren’t the only people there, not counting servants. Behind the Queen stood a familiar duo, the Awakened Pair that had stood guard whenever Rowan was handling Elan Fiir. 

Across from them sat a human woman who was likely in her early thirties and had midnight blue hair with azure highlights. Rowan guessed that she was the first princess of Særis, in part because of her hair, but mostly because Brennan and his partner were standing guard behind her. To the princess’ left there were a pair of younger Ferran males, likely the Ferran princes. They seemed to be of similar ages to Seres and Princess Elia and both had russet hair touched with white, notably on the tips of their ears.

As Rowan had the sudden realisation that there may end up being more to this breakfast than she had believed, Queen Elarin gave both her and Alena a warm smile and said, “Good morning, Rowan, Lady Alena. Might I introduce you to our guests? This is Princess Yona of Særis and to her left are Prince Tomas and Prince Kiaran, the eldest and youngest children of the Prince Sovereign of Ferran, respectively. Princess Yona, Prince Tomas, Prince Kiaran, this is Lady Rowan’efrii, the Ardent Flame, and her newfound partner, Lady Alena of House Muun.”

Alena immediately curtsied to everyone, showing particular deference to the two princes of Ferran. Rowan also curtsied to everyone. If it were just the Royal family, she would have settled with a slight bow of the head with how the Queen had insisted she didn’t need to be so formal. The presence of guests, however, changed everything. Rowan had to be on her best behaviour. She wasn’t hopeful. 

“Good morning, Your Majesty, Your Highnesses, and to your illuminated guests.”

Immediately after greeting everyone, Rowan felt like she had just said something extremely cringe worthy. She wanted to sound polite and sophisticated. Instead she sounded like a perfumed sycophant or worse, a flowery buffoon. She just knew it. She just…

“Why are they holding hands, Mother?”

Illusion shattered. In just a few words, the great Ardent Flame of Midiris had by slain by the mighty Prince Rikta. Why? Rowan didn’t know why. Something about his tone, maybe? Or perhaps it was his inquisitive gaze. Either way, Rowan wasn’t looking forward to the answer. It seemed like Alena wasn’t doing much better.

Unfortunately, the Queen was all too happy to answer her unreasonably adorable demon child and from the looks of it, he wasn’t the only person who wanted to know.

Queen Elarin gave Prince Rikta a sage look and told him, “You see, dear. Lady Rowan and Lady Alena are very close friends and…”

“Just say it how it is, Mother,” interrupted Seres with a surprising hint of annoyance. “Leave the sugar-coating to the historians.”

Rowan heard a slight chuckle to her left. Part of her wanted to glance over to see who it was. The other, more dominant side, however, was enraptured in stunned silence.

Following the rogue laughter, Seres fully took on the reins of explaining the Rowan and Alena situation before her mother could fill Prince Rikta’s head with unnecessary, partial truths. 

“What Mother meant to say, Rikta, is that they like each other romantically and hand-holding is a sign of affection between loved ones.”

“But they aren’t men?”

The facepalm was immediate as was the laughter on the left. The laughter was in turn followed by what Rowan could only assume was a slap and a yelp. 

Rowan had to look that time. Prince Kiara was rubbing the back of his head whilst Tomas seemed completely unphased and was sitting patiently.

How did he get his hand back so quickly?

Meanwhile, Princess Yona was clearly veiling a smirk behind a napkin.

Turning to look at the other guests had another purpose as well in that it gave Rowan the chance to see what Alena’s reaction to the whole sequence of events. Shocked. Mortified. Confused. Horrified. All were apt descriptors of Alena’s expression at that exact moment of time. Rowan decided to give her a slight nudge in the right direction, which is to say guide her to their seats. It was all she could do to not be stunned into catatonia herself.

Meanwhile Queen Elarin seemed perfectly happy to let Seres finish what she had started. It was almost cruel in a ‘not really but you took responsibility by interrupting’ way. Thankfully Seres regained her composure as Rowan and Alena took their seats.

Removing her palm from her face, Seres decided to get right to the root of the issue by asking, “What do you think romance is, Rikta?”

“It’s what men do to make people like them and want to get married so that they can have babies.”

An exchange of looks immediately followed that was a conversation in their own right.

Seriously? – Seres.

Not my job – Elia.

He’s too young for the talk – Elarin.

He’s nine! – Seres.

Admittedly that last one was guess from how exasperated Seres looked. After the quick silent conversation, Seres turned back to Rikta. 

“Okay, I’ve just got a couple more questions,” she told him. “First, do you think a man can be romantic to a man?”

Prince Rikta rolled his eyes. “Obviously.”

“That’s right. Do you think two men can have baby together without any extenuating circumstances?”

“If they get married.”

“Let me just put that answer to the side. How about a woman being romantic to a man?”

“No.”

He said it with confidence that Rowan wasn’t sure how to process it. So many gaps. From the looks of it, Seres was on the verge of tearing her hair out. After a few breaths, however, she turned to their guests and apologised.

 “It seems that my younger brother has a few gaps in his education and I’m sorry you all had to witness the discovery of such. I’ll have to amend this at a later date. Until then. Rikta.”

“Yes?”

“Romance refers to a special kind of love and intimacy between two people as well as the expression of those feelings. It can be initiated by anyone, not just men. And romance doesn’t necessarily lead to marriage and babies can occur independently of marriage. I’ll tell you more soon enough. Understand?”

“Yes,” Rikta nodded glumly. 

“Excellent. I think now might be a good time to eat, don’t you, Mother?”

“Indeed,” Queen Elarin answered before giving the servants a quick nod. They swept immediately into action and breakfast was served within moments. 

It was clear that extra care had been put into the meal as it was not only for the Royal family but visiting royals as well.

“This is delicious,” the Særan princess announced, speaking for the first time since Rowan and Alena had entered the room. She spoke with a mature timbre that gave her a strong presence on top of her rather unique appearance.

“I’m glad it is to your liking, Princess Yona,” Queen Elarin smiled, “this is a favourite of mine. How about you, Prince Tomas? Prince Kiaran?”

Prince Tomas answered first with a polite nod. “It is indeed an exquisite dish. The balance is divine.”

Kiatan was next. “I think my actions speak louder than words.” He was already finished and his plate was sparking.

Rowan was amazed. She hadn’t even seen him touch his silverware, yet here he was.

Did he inhale it or something? 

“Indeed,” Queen Elarin responded. “With that said, I think it is time to bring up why I wished for you all to meet today.” 

That got everyone’s attention.

“As you all know, my daughter here, Seres, was kidnapped roughly five years ago, as were Lady Rowan and countless others.”

The three visiting royals nodded at that.

“From what Seres and Lady Rowan have told me, young adolescents were taken from across Llen Fær, Sæeis, and Ferran over the course of several years to a series of caves underneath the Earldom of Fendras near the great fjord. The purpose? To enslave and torture them until they Awakened. It is clear to me that someone is engineering an army of Awakened soldiers for some foul scheme. I’m sure we can all agree that this is of grave concern to us all.”

Another round of nodding. Princess Yona looked pale at the implications while Tomas maintained a level expression. Kiaran on the other hand looked to be a mix of fear and excitement. He may be seventeen or so, but the idea of epic battle and adventure clearly appealed to him.

“With that in mind, it has also been brought to my attention that Lord Feilan Takiir, Earl of Fendras, is involved and was taking advantage of many young female prisoners.”

“That is a serious accusation, Your Majesty,” Princess Yona interjected. 

“And one that will need to be thoroughly investigated, as will this entire operation. Between us, we only have so many Awakened individuals to combat this threat. Especially when we don’t know where the main operation is based or where they are targeting. With that in mind, I would like to request that Lady Rowan and Seres be permitted to serve as my representatives on the mainland for the investigation and execution of the threat.”

“I’m sure that can be arranged,” Yona replied.

“Agreed,” Tomas added.

“Umm,” Rowan interrupted, “Would it be okay if I visit my family first? I need to see my father and find my sister.”

“Of course,” Elarin answered.

“Not alone you aren’t,” Seres interrupted, shaking her head. Rowan gave her a betrayed look. Seres only smiled and added, “I’m going with you.”

Alena giggled on Rowan’s other flank. “You didn’t think she was going to leave you alone, did you? I wish I could go with you as well, but we’ve already been away from the university for far too long. Promise me you’ll visit me?”

“Of course I will,” Rowan blushed.

“Looks like Rowan is ready to tie the knot,” Seres teased.

“I am not!” said Rowan a little bit too loudly.

“Remember where we are, Rowan,” chided Alena.

“Oh sorry.”

“I can definitely see the Ardent in her,” Yona laughed.

“This is tame,” Seres replied with laughter of her own.

Rowan gave her an accusative look and with several notes of mock betrayal, exclaimed, “Traitor!” 

“Oh to be young,” Queen Elarin sighed. “However, before that goes any further I must bring the conversation back on course. Rowan.”

“Yes?”

“Last night I granted you the title of Ardent Flame. If I’m being truthful, you aren’t ready for it. You are the third person in the history of Llen Fær to be granted the title and it is not done lightly.”

“Then why?”

“Because I’ve seen your strength and your passion. In time you will grow to become a legend in your own right, just like those who came before you. With that in mind, I grant you full leave to carry Elan Fiir as you see fit.”

“Thank you,” Rowan replied meekly.

The conversation for the rest of the breakfast was mostly on logistics. Eventually,  Rowan and Alena excused themselves to spend some time together while Seres took her younger brother aside to give him a more rounded education on sex and romance.

Overall it was a quiet day. A calm before the storm. Alena would be leaving soon, as were the rest of her party. It also seemed as if all the prisoners desiring passage to Særis would be leaving as well. That included both Amran and Maro. In a sense it was sad news, but at the same time, she would be making her way to the Azure City. Before then, however, she was going home.

Rowan was finally going home.

This actually ended up being roughly 1k words longer than I had originally anticipated. It may be a bit wordy and heavy on dialogue but I hope it was still an enjoyable read.

Now that I’ve done my post chapter comment, I’m going to take a leaf out of Selkie’s metaphorical book, and start shamelessly plugging at the end of each of my chapters. I’ll also be doing this retroactively for anyone that starts reading after I’ve done this.

First off, I’d like to invite you all to my discord server where you can engage with the community, discuss the story and come up with wild theories that I will totally judge for being wrong. Not really, I just like theories. The engagement also makes me happy and a happy Ren is a Ren who is in a better position to write.

Next is my Patreon, which is the go to place to support me while also getting some curated bonuses. It isn’t at all required but it does help massively and it is really appreciated. Down the line it will also let me call myself a full time writer which is a heart felt dream of mine.

If you want to support me with a one off donation, you can do so through my Ko-fi.

I’m also on Top Web Fiction, so boost me there.
http://topwebfiction.com/listings/ardent-tears/

Just to recap, here are the links

Discord – For Chatting
https://discord.gg/MG433BhXBK

Support Me – Patreon
https://www.patreon.com/Ardent_Tears

Support Me – Ko-fi
https://ko-fi.com/rencarlisle96437

Previous Chapter <-> Next Chapter

Interlude: A Voice on the Wind

Pre-Chapter Notes: Hello everyone. Just wanted to remind you that if you join my Patreon, you can read an extended uncut version of the final scene from the last chapter. It’s roughly 1100 words and goes into all the action and even features some characterisation of the two girls and their relationship. For the month of October, this is available at a reduced cost of £5. My writing pace is also picking up again after the nightmare of the past couple of months so I should be able to start building up my early access chapters for Patrons. First step will be one chapter and then five. If I get enough Patrons I’ll build that backlog up to ten chapter. While you’re at it, consider joining my discord server as well. With all that said, enjoy the chapter (and the juicy parts from last chapter if you missed it.)

Two river petals and a dawn flower to go and Tehri’s bouquet would be complete. She had spent the entire morning picking out flowers from the now surprisingly abundant flower garden that she had been tending to for the past four years. It wasn’t much but it let her stretch her creative juices without being overly expensive; which is to say it cost nothing other than time and a few seeds, most of which Tehri had harvested herself. 

At some point in the future, Tehri wanted to learn how to make pigments and, by extension, paint from her flowers so that she could get back to painting proper. Hana and Byrden had tried getting her some when they discovered her artistic nature, but it proved to be unreasonably challenging. For one, paint was significantly more expensive than Tehri had ever realised and the supplies weren’t much better. Second of all was the fact that it wasn’t exactly high on the stock lists of any of the merchants that stopped by the village.

At some point they managed to acquire a few paints for Tehri, hoping that it would help her first major bout of depression in their care. It had happened not long after they had told her about her mother’s fate. At first she was manic at the news. 

It was a dangerous time for her; mania and grief don’t mix well, especially when the person is to do much of anything physical to distract themselves. To make may matters worse, Tehri didn’t care that she had a weak constitution or that she was still recovering. Instead she pushed herself, almost as if she was seeking pain. At one point she even jumped off of one of the taller buildings. 

To this day she isn’t sure why she did isn’t sure why she did it, but when it happened, she crashed both figuratively and literally. 

Hana and Byrden were terrified when it happened and they were even less equipped to deal with the depression that followed. One of their attempted solutions were the aforementioned paints. 

Fortunately, she had only broken one of her arms from the fall so she was able to make use of them and it did help slightly. What she really needed, however, was time and maybe some of her medicine from home. Unfortunately the latter was well out of her reach. Time, however, was in ample supply, even if it filled her guardians with dread. 

Tehri’s mood started to improve as spring approached. When it was good enough she did one last painting and then made Hana and Byrden promise that they wouldn’t buy her any more supplies. She refused to be a drain on their resources. From that day she started helping out with chores as best as she could which is what led her to the garden. 

In time it grew to become her new artistic venture. It may not have been painting, but it made her happy enough. As an added bonus, Hana was particularly fond of the bouquets that Tehri created. In fact, Hana was the recipient of the one she was working on that morning. 

The occasion? Hana had just discovered that she was pregnant with her first child. It was news worthy of celebration and Tehri wanted to do her part. This was the least she could do, especially when her competition was Byrden who had discovered a way to be over both moons at once.

With the dawn flower picked, Tehri made her way inside the house; it had grown over the years. Not by much, but enough that they could more comfortably accommodate for the family they were planning for. Tehri felt a little guilty about that because without her, the house would have already been big enough for a couple of children if she hadn’t been there. Alas, Tehri had taken the only spare bedroom in the house. Now, however, there were an additional two rooms that had been built into the side of the house. Tehri looked forward to the day that they would eventually see use. Today, however, was not that day.

Tehri found Hana in the kitchen trying her latest creation. She had been told by some of the other women to expect weird cravings when she eventually got pregnant and now that she was, it seemed like she was overcompensating for a lack of any by creating various weird and wacky dishes. 

Tehri gave the wall a slight knock to get her attention right as she was giving her creation a taste. That was unintentional on Tehri’s part as was what came next. Hana dropped the spoon and started sputtering almost immediately. Panicking, Tehri placed the bouquet down on the table and rushed over. She signed quickly to say, Sorry, are you okay?

Sign language was a useful skill and one all three of them had learned together after a merchant had suggested it to them. It made communication between them significantly faster and a lot more convenient which was important in times like this.

Seeing the signs, Hana did her best to compose herself and respond. After a moment or two she managed to respond with, “I’m okay. You just surprised me is all.”

I didn’t mean to, Tehri signed back, I just wanted to show you these flowers. They’re for you and the baby.

“That’s really sweet, thank you. Though I think it might be a bit premature to start getting the baby flowers.

I know that!

“True enough. Care to try some of this soup?”

Tehri’s face paled at the proposition; Hana’s dishes had become a game of chance. On one hand it could be delicious, and on the other it could be congealed frog jelly soup with pickled River slugs or worse. Even so, if it made her happy, Tehri dared risk it.

Hana handed her a small tasting bowl and ladled in some of the soup. It didn’t look too threatening. If anything it looked to be a rather unassuming creamy yellow. It even had a mellow aroma that made Tehri even more suspicious. Alas, it was too late for her to back away now so she touched the bowl to her lips and tilted it back. 

Tehri’s eyes widened in surprise as the soup hit her tongue. She could taste the gentle and earthy notes of potato and celeriac. Something was wrong. It was far too normal; there had to be something else. She had to try it again to be sure. Then it came. Tehri started to feel a rising heat from soup, one that threatened to bring her to tears. Only the tears never came. Instead the heat had been tempered by the creaminess of the soup in a way that Tehri didn’t even realise was possible. She also didn’t realise that she was smiling.

“I’m glad that you like it,” Hana beamed. “Though I can tell that you’re a little surprised. Don’t worry. I’ve got an extra spicy version that I’ll be sharing with the other mothers in the village later this week. They won’t know what hit them.”

Tehri couldn’t help but laugh at Hana’s devilish plan, even if it scared her a little.

“Oh yeah, before I forget. Would you be able to do me a favour, Tehri?”

In response, Tehri gave her a quizzical look.

“I need a couple of things from the market. Do you mind picking them up for me? I’ve got a list and the money already prepared.”

I can do that no problem. 

“You’re a lifesaver. One of the stalls closes at noon and it won’t be open again for another two weeks. There’s a little extra money in the pouch so use it to treat yourself. 

Thank you.

*****

It was a relatively short walk to the market even with Hana and Byrden’s house being on the far side of the village. If Hana wasn’t still working on her soup or needing to do chores around the house, she could have probably made it in plenty of time. Even if that was the case, however, and Hana was just lazing around, Tehri would still have obliged. She liked being outside and doing a little shopping wouldn’t strain her too much.

When she arrived at the market, she went looking for the stall that was due to close early. It was manned by wizened hermit of a man with long unkempt greying brown hair and a similarly ‘styled’ beard. That is to say, Tehri hoped his hair was brown. It was difficult to tell and the twigs that decorated it didn’t help. Neither did the earthy aroma that he gave off or the fact that Tehri didn’t recognise him at all. In spite of that, he looked clean enough.

As for what he sold, Tehri could see a plethora of herbs and fungi, many of which were still in the dirt from which they had grown. Tehri recognised some of his wares, but most were beyond her.

The man looked over at Tehri as she approached and straightened slightly. He then called to her and asked, “What can I do you, little miss?” with a voice like moving earth. 

Tehri handed him the list, hoping that he could read. She was doubtful; comprehensive reading skills weren’t exactly common in the village.

He mused over the list for a second and then peered over it to look down at Tehri. “Are you sure this is what you want, little miss?”

Tehri nodded.

“Then I hope you are prepared for the consequences.”

The man’s tone in saying that was far too ominous for Tehri’s liking. She tried to sign for clarification but he only gave her a confused look. 

As she flailed about, someone else called out to her. A golden haired boy approached them from across the market. He was around the same age as Tehri, and well built with a smile that could melt even the coldest of hearts. He was also one of Tehri’s few friends and the only one that had gone out of their way to learn sign language.

Hi, Kamren, Tehri signed to him. 

The wizened man gave him a knowing glance and said, “This must be the father.”

Tehri gave the man a horrified look. It may have been true that Tehri liked Kamren and that they had even kissed, but father?

Kamren had a similar reaction, only he voiced it.

“The young miss is purchasing mother’s wort, elden root, and milker’s truth cap. These are all highly effective natal supplements and remedies to help with the early stages of pregnancy.”

In that instant, everything became clear. Tehri started signing to Kamren so that he could translate for her.

“These aren’t for me, they’re for my guardian, Hana. It’s her first child.” 

After clarifying for Tehri, Kamren realised what he had just said. He turned to her and asked, “Since when?”

Last month? Tehri answered.

“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

We only found out a week or so ago.

“But you just said…”

You do know that it takes some time after you do the deed to learn the results, don’t you?

“Yes?” answered Kamren with absolutely zero confidence. 

You’re hopeless. 

“This is all very nice,” the man interjected, “and I apologise for the mistake, but we should continue. Noon fast approaches.”

Tehri nodded and asked how much it would cost.

“Two wheat and seven pennies,” the man answered. It was a colloquial way of saying two bronze coins and seven copper pennies.

Tehri handed him the coins and he prepared the goods with a loving, delicate touch. He wrapped each bundle of herbs in cloth and placed the fungi in small wicker boxes before loading everything into a canvas bag. Kamren took the bag for Tehri and offered to join her for the rest of the venture.

Some time later they found a quiet place out of the way to take a break. Tehri had bought them a little snack in the form of shimmer-grilled vegetables for them to eat with the extra money that Hana had given her. 

While they were eating, Kamren prompted a conversation by saying, “Did you hear the rumors from the capital about the missing princess and how they hosted a massive party to celebrate her return?”

No? Tehri replied.

“It was the talk of the market all morning. Apparently she had been kidnapped or something all those years ago along with a bunch of other people. Something about those raiders. Anyway, they managed to escape and find their way back. One of them was given a really old title from way back when, but I don’t know why. I think it might have been something to do with them being an Ardent. All I know for sure is their last name is really similar to yours.”

The news hit Tehri like a landslide. Her hand drifted to the bracelet on her wrist. She dared not hope.

What was their name? she asked.

“Nairiir? Neiliir? Something like that.”

Tehri’s heart jumped. She dared not hope, but after hearing those names. It was obvious how you could get to either one from Naliir. And on top of that, they’re supposedly an Ardent who was captured by the raiders. Tehri dared to hope.

She forgot about the shopping and ran back to the house. Kamren shouted after her, but his words landed on deaf ears. 

Minutes later she threw the front door open to find a startled Hana.

“Tehri? What’s going on?”

My sister! She’s free!

“Say again?”

My sister is in the capital. She escaped with the princess!

“How do you know that?”

The merchants were talking and they said her name. Our name. They said Naliir or some close enough approximation of it.

Hana was speechless. If it was true, it was incredible news. Even so, she wasn’t sure what they could do about it. Midiris was so incredibly far away. That’s how it seemed to her at least. Granted, the furthest she had ever been from Aran Village was Talaran City. The only thing she could think of was sending a letter and praying it reached her. Before she could suggest it to Tehri, however, someone else came barging through the door.

Kamren was breathing heavily, trying not to drop all the wares he was carrying.

“You forgot the shopping, Tehri.”

And with that, the moment was, for the time being, lost.

Previous Chapter <-> Next Chapter

Chapter 22 (Safer for Work Version)

Pre-Chapter Notes: Hello everyone. You will notice that this chapter is listed as “Safer for Work”. This is because the full chapter features an extended and highly explicit scene which I know some people would rather avoid. You can access the uncut version through my Patreon for £5 up until November, at which point it will be on the £10 tier. Going forwards, any chapter that has an extended and highly explicit scene will be made available in full on Patreon and an abridged version will be available here. For those of you that sign up, the extended scene is an additional 1100 words, which I hope you enjoy. For everyone else, I also hope you enjoy.

With that said, I would also like to give out to shout-outs with this chapter. First of is Selkie and their novel Beneath the Dragoneye Moons. They are at their one year anniversary and have been an incredible support to myself and many other writers while also creating an incredible story. Join Elaine in the litRPG world of Pallos. Be warned, there are dinosaurs.

Second of all is DarkTechnomancer and their story Fates Parallel. DarkTechnomancer has also been a great support to me over the past few months. Fates Parallel is a cultivation story that follows Lee Jia as she tries to survive winter and carve a future for herself.

Not a moment had passed after the two girls had sat down for breakfast that Seres started to inquire about Rowan’s dawn time exhibitionism.

“You don’t need to answer me, Rowan, but why did you decide to present yourself to gardeners in the nude?”

“That wasn’t my intent,” Rowan answered with a face redder than the tomatoes on her plate.

“Oh?”

“Well not exactly.”

The inquisitive look that Seres gave her made it clear that, despite the initial disclaimer, she had no intention of letting this go. As such, Rowan decided that there was no helping it.

“Okay, so I was trying to talk with my dead sister and it’s really difficult when I’m not in an emotionally heightened state so I thought making myself super embarrassed would work because I was already slightly embarrassed from having a lewd dream last night which resulted in me accidentally squirting all over the bed.”

The words came in an awkward, breathless stream that bombarded the ears of everyone in the room, including all of the servants and Seres’ guards. Unsurprisingly and somewhat amusingly, it caught most of the people by surprise. One of the servants, who had managed to maintain his cool for most of the conversation, nearly dropped the platter he was holding. Even Seres was blushing.

“That was probably a bit too much information, Rowan,” prodded Seres from behind a pair of hands that only slightly veiled her flustered expression.

“What was?” Rowan replied before realising what she had just said. “Oh. Oh no. Please forget what I just said. All of it.”

“I wish I could,” responded Seres. 

For several minutes, awkward silence filled the room. The only sounds to be heard were the clinking of silverware on porcelain and chewing. It only made Rowan feel even more self-conscious about everything, even things completely unrelated to current goings on. Was she chewing too loud? Did her hair look weird? Was she about to confess her wildest fantasies? That kind of thing.

The room grew dark and cold. Rowan felt her anxiety levels rise. Everyone was watching. They knew.

*Clink*

Rowan’s heart skipped a beat. She froze. Then a hand touched her own. Rowan was back in the moment. Seres was smiling softly at her.

“It’s okay, Rowan,” she said, “you’re safe here. I won’t let anyone hurt you.”

Not quite believing her, Rowan looked around the room and true enough, the servants were focused on their work instead of her. If anything, they were acting as if Rowan’s little outburst had never even happened. 

“Do you really mean it?” asked Rowan after turning back to Seres with watery eyes.

“Of course I do, you hopeless softie of an Ardent. I can’t have you breaking down when we have a party ahead of us. Now is the time to celebrate and have fun.”

“I guess you’re right,” said Rowan quietly.

“Even if I wasn’t, I would make it so by royal decree,” replied Seres with a brilliant smile.

Rowan gave her a look of mock horror. “You cannae do that,” she said.

“Watch me. What good is privilege if you don’t use it to help people?”

“I guess?” answered Rowan, not quite sure of how she was supposed to respond.

“It’s fine. Now hurry up and finish eating. You’ve still got half a plate of food and we need to start getting ready.”

“Already?” But it’s still morning? The ball isn’t until this evening.”

Seres gave Rowan a look and laughed brightly. In response, Rowan felt a heavy frown upon her lips. She couldn’t help but feel like she was missing something.

“After all the prep we’ve already done, did you really thing that we would only be at it for an hour or something today?” Seres asked finally. 

“I hadn’t really given it much thought to be honest,” Rowan answered. 

“Well we still need to bathe, visit the sauna, get a full body massage, do a full set of stretches, rinse off, eat lunch, have our nails and makeup done, and our hair cut and styled. Only then can we get dressed and make the final adjustments.”

Rowan gave Seres a concerned look as she finished off listing everything that they still needed to do. “That sounds like a lot,” said Rowan hesitantly. 

“It’ll be worth it, I promise,” responded Seres.

“One last question.”

“Go on?”

“Was that list in order or?”

“Ideally yes. It would be a bit awkward if we bathed after we had our makeup done or rinsed off before bathing.”

“That’s not what I meant!” Rowan pouted.

“It wasn’t?” Seres replied with mock surprise. “How careless of me. Now eat up. We have just under an hour before we need to start if we don’t want to rush ourselves.”

*****

Several hours later Rowan was waiting around in nervous trepidation alongside Seres for the signal that would summon them to the ball. Normally they would already be there. However, as the ball was meant to celebrate Seres’ return and rescue, custom dictated that she was to wait until the guests had settled in, at which point she would be announced. Furthermore, Seres had insisted that Rowan receive the same treatment on account of being her friend and saviour. Queen Elarin didn’t need much convincing either. Apparently, the others were also being announced if they so desired because of their roles in the escape and bringing Seres home.

It was a nerve wracking wait that was heightened by Rowan’s abundant energy levels. The excitement combined with the strange lunch that they had had provided her with more vigor than she could reasonably handle. Seres was doing a better job of hiding it but Rowan could tell that she was nervous and excited as well. 

“Is it always like this?” Rowan asked finally.

“I’m not sure,” Seres answered. “The last time I was in this position was my eleventh birthday so it isn’t exactly the freshest of memories.”

“Sorry.”

“Why are you apologising, silly?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well stop it. It’s almost time. How do I look?”

“Am I really the person to be answering that?”

“Why not? Is my honorary sister incapable of giving her opinion or should I be asking my non-existent partner or something?”

“Well if you really want my opinion, you look absolutely stunning.” Rowan wasn’t lying either.

Seres glowed with the gentle touch of makeup which only added to her already perfect skin. Meanwhile her hair had been caught in an elegantly messy bun with crown braid that kept her pale shoulders untouched by unruly locks. The hair and makeup alone would have been enough to make her truly beautiful, but they were only the beginning. 

Next came what some would argue was the centrepiece of the entire look. That being the dress. Rowan was inclined to disagree, thinking rather that Seres in her entirety earned that honour. That isn’t to say the dress wasn’t incredible; it was. In fact, incredible only began to describe the dress and its heart-shaped neckline and long flowing skirt. It was of a deep azure and accented with gold, much like her namesake of lapis lazuli. The colours paired perfectly with her eyes, which was unsurprisingly really, considering they were the reason behind the name. About her waist she wore a short black corset that came up to just beneath the bust. The dress had an opening for Seres’ tail near the base of the corset as it transitioned into the skirt. Her skirt trailed along gracefully behind her while showing off her ankles and high heeled shoes.

Besides her dress, Seres also wore a small selection of jewellery in the form of a necklace, a series of bracelets, a couple of rings and a silver tiara. The necklace served as a contrast to the rest of her outfit by means of a crimson gem which doubled as an aesthetic link to Rowan. To add to that link, one of Seres’ rings was a twin to one that Rowan was wearing.

Finally, due to the cut of her dress, the top of Seres’ back and by extension, her scars were exposed. To cover her scars she wore a deep blue shawl. 

After taking it all in, Rowan gave Seres a smile and a twirl before asking, “What about me?”

Rowan’s look had been taken in a completely different direction to Seres. Even so, the idea behind it was the same, to highlight Rowan’s character. Compared to Seres, Rowan’s hair was much shorter, reaching down only to her shoulder. As such, her stylists opted to keep her hair down while weaving some braids and crystalline flowers into her gentle windswept waves. The flowers took the place of a tiara and served to bring even more attention to her brilliant red hair. Meanwhile, her make-up was designed to capitalise on that draw to create a full picture that highlighted her features perfectly. From the small wings and the touch of smokiness that gave incredible depth to her violet Ferran eyes to the soft blush and rose lips for contrast with her alabaster skin.

Adding to her image was her brilliant red dress that had been designed to ripple like fire. The flame aesthetic was further complimented by the secondary and accent colours, though the dressmakers had made sure to keep it from being too much. Compared to Seres’ dress, Rowan’s had a low back, showing the full extent of her scars and she lacked a shawl to cover them. That had been her decision; she wanted to show everyone what they had been through, what they had survived. Of course this meant that the dress couldn’t be held up around the bust or with shoulder straps. Instead, the straps were caught in a choker at the neck with a window of fiery lace. Instead of a necklace, a single teardrop gem hung from the choker. 

As for the skirt, it was made from a light flower material that ended just below the knee and flared as Rowan twirled. This in combination with the colour is what truly gave the aesthetic of flame whilst giving Rowan full fluidity of motion which was important due to how dynamic she could be. To compliment her dress she wore a flat pair of red shoes that laces up her ankles with ribbon and a single arm ring around her right bicep.

When Rowan came to a stop, Seres laughed warmly and said, “You look great, Rowan. Perfect even.”

“Thank you,” said Rowan with a soft blush.

Seres then gave her a serious look and cautioned her, “Don’t be surprised if you draw the attention of many a bachelor or maybe even a few bachelorettes. And be careful not to get caught in the moment or let yourself get overwhelmed.”

“I appreciate the heads up, but isn’t this a new experience for you as well?”

“Well yes. I’m just repeating the same warning that my sister gave me. Though she only told me the second half. I added the part about the suitors myself.”

Rowan gave Seres a slight pout. “Don’t give me that, Seres. You’re just as, if not more, worthy of suitors than I am. I’m sure you’ll get as much attention as I do.”

“I’ll definitely get a lot of attention, but courting works a little differently when it comes to princesses.”

“Why would that be?” Rowan asked.

“Because of how valuable we are politically.”

“Do you really think your mother would force you into a political marriage after all you’ve been through?”

“No,” Seres admitted, “but the court doesn’t know that and they’ll follow tradition.”

“Sounds stupid to me,” Rowan snorted.

“Not as stupid as the sound you just made,” Seres laughed. “Seriously though, I’m happy that I’ll be able to enjoy the ball without needing to worry about that. And it’s not like people won’t ask me to dance or anything.”

“That’s good at least. And if they don’t, I’ll show everyone what they’re missing.”

“You don’t need to do anything that extreme.”

“What else is a beautiful Ardent to do when her honorary sister is neglected?” asked Rowan seriously.

Seres returned the look as best she could before falling to laughter. When she looked up again, Rowan was also laughing. 

Their laughter was interrupted by a knock on the door. “It is time, Your Highness,” said a maid on the other side.

“Right away,” Seres replied before turning to Rowan. “Shall we?”

“Let’s.”

*****

“Honoured guests,” cried a herald, his voice amplified via Resonance Crystal so that even Rowan and Seres could hear it from outside, “it is great pride and privilege that I am able to welcome our lost princess home. Join me in welcoming Her Royal Highness, Seres Talyren El Ria Lanafae, Princess of the Dawn.” 

What followed was an earth-shaking cheer that rippled through the city, marking the official start of celebrations for the common folk. Inside, however, the herald was not finished.

“I also have the honour of introducing the woman who sacrificed everything to keep our beloved princess safe from damnation and bring her home. Join me in giving your thanks to Rowan’efrii Alyris Naliir, Ardent Protector.”

The cheer for Rowan was no less than what Seres had been given, though arguably they were both for her. Even so it lit a fire in Rowan’s heart. When the doors opened, she was raring to go. 

Then she saw the great hall and her jaw nearly hit the floor, both literally and figuratively. The room felt like it had been built for giants. Either that or the people within were the size of pygmies for they were completely dwarfed by the incredibly bodacious architecture and grand decorations. Adding almost unreasonably to the effect were the floating network of platforms above the main floor that also served as large crystalline lights. Even after seeing the statues in the garden earlier, Rowan would never have imagined such a gravity defying feat was possible. Even Seres seemed like she had been taken completely aback by the sight.

“That’s new,” she whispered, barely moving her lips as they strode forwards.

“What is?” Rowan asked.

“The platforms.”

“You don’t think they did this just for us, do you?”

“Not a chance. There’s no way this just happened out of the blue. I’ll ask my mother some other time. Speaking of which, we’re meant to present ourselves to her.”

“Lead the way.”

Seres took them straight through the middle of the main floor past the nobles who had been dancing before the announcement. Each one bowed or curtsied as they passed. When they reached the other side they ascended a grand flight of stairs to the only platform not raised by Gravitational Resonance. The platform was large in its own right and decorated lavishly in the royal colours of Llen, Fær, red and silver with an accent of gold. They found Queen Elarin at the centre-back of the platform flanked by the rest of her family and her attendants.

Seres stepped forwards and spoke so that her voice would carry. “Your Majesty, after many years I have returned home.”

In response, Queen Elarin stood and bowed her head slightly. “Welcome home, Seres, my daughter. And to you, Rowan’efrii, I thank you for returning my daughter to me. To show my gratitude I extend to you the titles of An’Fær and Ardent Flame of Midiris along with an invitation to my court.”

Rowan curtsied and gave her answer. “I wholeheartedly accept.”

“Then let it be known that Rowan’efrii of House Naliir is a lady in more than name. She is truly worthy of our gratitude as are all who spearheaded the rescue and return of my daughter and her compatriots. As for those that escaped alongside them, they are deserving of our aid. The crown will do its part. I ask that you all do the same. Last of all, the crown is committed to doing what it can to put an end to the foul plot that haunts our lands and those of our brothers and sisters to the East. As for you, Lady Rowan, I ask that you continue to be my daughter’s friend, ally, and protector.”

“Of course, Your Majesty. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

With Rowan’s answer given and Queen Elarin’s declaration made, the hall fell silent. Rowan had been given a tremendous honour, one that hadn’t been given even in the lifetime of the oldest living nobles of Midiris. Before the silence became overbearing, however, the music started again and people started to return to their socialising. 

With everything back to normal, Queen Elarin gave Rowan and Seres a smile. “Now go enjoy yourselves,” she said, notably quieter than before. “This ball is for you, after all.”

Having been given leave, the two girls descended into the ball, ready to partake in all that the festivities had to offer. It was slow going right at the beginning as everyone wanted to speak to Seres who felt obligated to share at least a few words with everyone that approached her. Not wanting to leave her to the wolves, Rowan stayed by her side. That’s what she told herself as least. It totally wasn’t because she was intimidated. Even so, she could only handle the endless sharing of pleasantries for so long as it eventually got to the point that she was visibly agitated to those that knew what to look for. 

During a brief pause in the exchange, Seres gave Rowan a quick glance and said, “You don’t need to stay here, glued to my side, you know.”

“I do, but…”

“Go and party already. I’ll find a way to free myself before too long and I’d rather not do it by you scaring everyone away.”

“Sorry,” replied a glum Rowan.

“Just have fun. Consider it an order.”

“A royal one?”

“Of course not. It’s an order between friends. That means you have to follow it.”

“Is that how it works?” Rowan laughed.

“It is today,” Seres answered with mock seriousness. “Now hurry up. Someone is coming to greet me.”

“Fine,” said Rowan with a rolling of her eyes. “Just promise to come find me if you need rescuing.”

“Rowan!”

“I’m going.”

Rowan was laughing as she took her leave. And then she realised that she had no idea what she was supposed to do even after all the prep and drilling she had done with Seres. A ball was, after all, completely different from the festivals of her youth. It would have been different if she knew anyone, but she was surrounded by strangers who were in their social element. Only that wasn’t entirely true; there were people here that she knew. At least there were meant to be. 

With a bit of hope, Rowan cast her gaze across the main floor. As she did she caught a glimpse of Maro in a relatively simple light blue dress dancing with a young man. Across from them, Ædarik and Ashlin were also dancing. They both looked incredible in their formal attire. In any other setting, Ashlin may have been a showstopper with her dress of midnight purple and glistening nebulae. Alas, she had some strong competition and Rowan wasn’t going to go without a fight. Granted, it seemed like Ashlin already had a prize. If anything, it made Rowan a little jealous. 

Not wanting to dwell on that, she continued to look for someone who was free. Sure enough she eventually found Amran rather out of the way to the side. Somewhat unsurprisingly, he was on his own and dressed in rather subdued formal wear. Rowan navigated her way across to him with only a little difficulty.

When she reached him, Rowan announced herself in a rather unconventional way by saying, “Knock knock.”

Amran looked up and gave Rowan a dry smile as he responded. “You know, I’d have known it was you even if you hadn’t said anything. Your emotions are like a beacon.”

“Nice to see you too.”

“I’m surprised you found the time to come see me.”

“I meant to visit you sooner, but…”

“You’ve been busy. I know. I’m not complaining.”

“You sound like you’re complaining.”

“That’s just you confusing my annoyed tone with my happy tone.”

“Well it’s not my fault they’re so similar.”

“I see the tides have turned.”

“Stop that,” Rowan laughed. 

Obliging, Amran restored the conversation. “So, to what do I have the honour of your company so early in the night.”

“You were the first person I saw that I already knew and didn’t seem to be occupied.”

“Why not try talking to people you don’t know?” suggested Amran.

“It’s not that easy,” Rowan complained. 

“You managed with me just fine when we first met.”

“And I completely flubbed it, remember,” Rowan reminded him.

“So you did.”

“And even if I hadn’t, this is a completely different situation. How are you supposed to initiate conversation with strangers in a formal setting?”

“By approaching them and saying ‘hello’?” Amran suggested before reminding Rowan with, ” I’m not exactly an expert on the matter.”

“True. I just wish I had something else to work with.”

Suddenly, Amran gave Rowan a suspicious glance and asked, “Conversation with strangers isn’t the only thing you’re avoiding, is it?”

The question made Rowan feel guilty. “No?” she said with that all too unconvincing rising pitch.

“I don’t blame you for the loss of my foot, Rowan.”

“I didn’t think…”

“Yes you did and we both know it. I’m fine. Honestly.”

“You are?”

“Thanks to the medics and healers that have been attending me, yes. The prosthetic is taking a little getting used to but that’s a minor issue in the grand scheme of things.”

“How are you taking this so well?”

“Because it is in my nature.”

“This goes beyond nature.”

“Perhaps. Irregardless, if this was my limit, I would have fallen years ago.”

“It’s still impressive.”

“Then I accept the compliment,” said Amran with the slightest hint of a smile.

“So what’s next for you?”

“I asked the Queen if she could arrange for me to attend The Azure University.”

“That sounds like it would suit you.”

“Indeed. It is my intent to aid in the study of Stoics.”

“It’s good that you have an idea of what lies ahead of you. I have a destination, but no map to guide me.”

“You’re referring to your oath, correct?”

“Aye.”

“Then I must disagree with you.”

Feeling mildly offended, Rowan started to interject, “That’s not how…”

“Let me finish. I disagree with the completion of your oath being your destination. That’s only a point on your journey.”

“I think you’re reading a wee bit too much into my choice of words.”

“Then why did you say it with such finality.”

“I didn’t, did I?”

“You did. Have your vengeance, but don’t let it consume you. You aren’t alone or fighting just for yourself, after all.”

“Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it. With that said, I believe another person that enjoys leaking emotion is here to see you.”

“You what?”

Before Amran could answer, someone cleared their throat behind Rowan. The voice that followed had a dark, enchanting quality and the slightest hint of a lilt. If sound were touch it would have been that of smooth velvet.

“Forgive me for my intrusion, Lady Naliir, for I couldn’t delay my approach a moment longer.” 

Rowan turned to face the voice bearer and he did not disappoint. His face was chiselled to a almost statuesque degree and was further complemented by an extremely well groomed, but still casual, stubble and a similarly styled head of short and slightly choppy hair the colour of mahogany. He stood with an almost towering confidence that felt almost like a challenge. It didn’t help that he was a full foot taller than Rowan or that was looking at her intently with his burgundy coloured eyes. 

Maintaining eye contact with him for too long was difficult so she decided to instead admire the rest of him; surreptitiously, of course. Even with his rather dapper attire, Rowan could tell that he was incredibly well toned. With that said he didn’t appear to be at all bulky. That gave him the appearance of being strong but not overly imposing.

“Lady Naliir?” he said again.

“Hmmm?” Rowan replied, barely noticing.

“I can leave,” he suggested, sounding a little deflated.

This time Rowan managed to look him in the face again. His confidence was gone and the illusion was shattered. He no longer looked like the vision of perfection. That isn’t to say he wasn’t still incredibly attractive, just that he was closer to the realm of mortals than Rowan had thought mere seconds before.

“Oh hello, sorry,” she said after a moment, “I was distracted. Don’t leave. What can I do for you?”

“Well I was entranced by your beauty and I knew that I’d regret it if I didn’t try speaking to you before night’s end.”

Rowan blushed furiously at the complement and stumbled awkwardly over her response; “I can thank you,” was about all she managed initially. 

“You can?”

“Sorry, I’m not used to this,” Rowan apologised. “What I meant to say is thank you and I’d be happy to talk with you. Would you mind giving me your name?”

“That would be a good place to start wouldn’t it? My name is Brennan. I’m an Ardent from the Awakened Corp of the Særan Military. I’m serving as ‘guard duty’ for the King’s delegation.”

“Guard duty? King’s delegation?”

“The King of Særis,” Brennan explained, “he couldn’t attend himself, but when he heard about Princess Seres’ return he sent a delegation to extend his joy and best wishes.”

“That still doesn’t explain the guard duty part.”

“A formality for the most part. Llen Fær and Særis are allied nations, after all. However, our own princess is in attendance at this ball, as are the first and second princes of Ferran, so my partner and I are serving as part of the honour guard.”

“Makes sense,” Rowan conceded.

Brennan’s voice then took a more serious tone. He looked into Rowan’s eyes and asked, “With that said, may I be so bold to ask if you would honour me with a dance?”

Rowan smiled back at him a little awkwardly. “I would be happy to honour you so,” she said before smugly adding, “if you can keep up.”

“Is that a challenge? I’ll have you know that I’m no slouch on the dance floor.”

“Neither am I,” said Rowan simply without a hint of a boast.

Meanwhile, Alena saw the entire exchange happen from one of the platforms. She was pouting as she complained to Davra.

“This is what I get for not wanting to interrupt her while she was talking to her friend.”

“Stop worrying about it, Alena. It was inevitable that people were going to notice her. Have you seen her? Damn, she cleans up nicely.”

“Well I saw her first.”

“Stop acting like a child, Alena. If you really want to woo her, take the initiative or wait for the prime time to strike.”

“I’m not sure about that…”

“Then just speak to her. She already likes you at least a little bit so you have an overwhelming advantage compared to most of the people that are likely to approach her.”

“If you say so,” Alena sighed.

“I do say so.”

“Okay, let me just work out how I’m going to do this.”

“Take your time. Just don’t squander your chance.”

“I won’t.”

Rowan was smiling from ear to ear as her dance with Brennan came to a close. And despite putting Brennan through his paces, she bore no signs of exertion. Brennan, on the other hand, was red in the face and breathing heavily. For some reason he was also walking a little awkwardly.

“It would appear that I lost,” he huffed. “I think it might be an idea for me to take a break after that.”

“Are you okay?” Rowan asked. 

“I will be after I sit down and get a bite to eat. Next time I’ll be better prepared. Until then, I’ll let you get back to mingling.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it.”

“It was fun dancing with you, by the way.”

Those were Rowan’s parting words. After that, she was getting approached pretty much every time she was alone due to her suitors having been emboldened by Brennan. Some didn’t even give her the courtesy of waiting with a prime example having five guys arguing about who would have the privilege of courting Rowan right in front of her without giving the common courtesy of asking for her thoughts or opinions on the matter. Thankfully, she was able to slip away because of how absorbed they were with their argument.

It wasn’t all bad. Some of the people were perfectly nice and some even charmed Rowan enough that she was willing to dance with them. Others, however, were much worse from “Maybe we should go somewhere where you can remove that dress and cool off,” to “Is it hot in here or do I see a mirage before me?” or even, “I must say, that tattoo on your back is a show of excellent taste and style.” That last one earned the gentleman that said it a rather firm slap. Which is to say, she hit him with enough force to knock him off balance and over the railings on the platform. Miraculously he survived, but not without a few broken bones.

After that, Rowan was given some space to breathe so she took it upon herself to find some food. The tables were filled with delicacies from around the world, many of which Rowan had never seen before. That made it a little bit more of a challenge to find things she liked. In the end she settled on a table dedicated to Midiran cuisine.

As Rowan started to eat her fill the crows started to gather again. Before they could swoop in, however, she heard a familiar voice.

“Rowan!” Alena called out. “I’m so glad I found you.”

Rowan’s heart skipped a beat at the sound of Alena’s voice. She hadn’t forgotten her attraction to the young Ferran lady nor her desire to be more than just friends with her.

Caught in the moment, Rowan practically ran at Alena and hugged her. Alena cried out in happy surprise from the sudden embrace, but after she collected herself, she hugged Rowan back.

“I’ll take that as ‘you’re happy to see me too’?” Alena asked.

“More than happy,” Rowan replied. “I thought I’d never get the chance to speak to someone else that I knew tonight and then bam, my number one choice appeared.”

“Your number one choice?”

Realising what she had said, Rowan turned bright crimson and stammered, “P-please f-forget what I just said.”

Seeing the extremely embarrassed Rowan only made Alena blush which in turn made Rowan more embarrassed. If ever it were possible for an Ardent to generate visible heat without anger, it was now.

To cap it off, Alena managed to compose herself enough for a response. She looked into Rowan’s eyes and said, “It makes me happier than you can imagine to know that I was your number one choice.” 

With that, Rowan fainted into Alena’s arms. She came to in a matter of seconds, but it was enough; her heart was racing.

The only words she managed after that were, “care to dance?” to which Alena wholeheartedly obliged. Their dance soon became the focal point of the event as desire started to imbue every inch of Rowan’s being. In that moment, she showed everyone what it meant to be the Ardent Flame; just not in the way that the Queen had imagined. The bountiful emotion was felt by everyone in the great hall and more than a few flames were kindled that night in the light of passion. Only one person was free from the overwhelming touch of Rowan’s desire and that was Alena herself. Deep down, Rowan wanted Alena’s feelings for her to be unadulterated. 

They were both breathing heavily when the dance came to a close. Their bodies clung to each other and the gathered audience cheered for the most part. In amidst the clapping, Alena managed to say, “know anywhere quieter where we can cool down?”

Rowan knew just the place. She took Alena’s hand and led her to the Sunfall Apartments.

*****

Rowan and Alena were barely through the door to the apartments. when they started kissing each other passionately. They didn’t even make it to Rowan’s bedroom before they danced with their tongues. Their firm and extremely intimate embrace of course made navigating the parlour a significant challenge as they broke at least one vase and tripped over a sofa. Eventually they made their way to Rowan’s door. Alena pushed Rowan against it and fiercely pressed against her as she reached up and unfastened Rowan’s dress.

As Alena then went to kiss Rowan’s neck, eliciting a quiet moan, Rowan opened the door and swept Alena in. There was pause in the action as Rowan established control and guided Alena to the bed. With Alena sat down on the bed’s edge, Rowan straddled her and kissed her deeply. After a moment, she whispered into Alena’s ear, “Is this okay?”

Alena’s answer was simple and clear.

“Yes.”

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