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.”

Previous Chapter <-> Next Chapter

Chapter 21

The touch of crimson settled on Rowan’s cheeks as a euphoric tingling rushed through her body, jolting her awake. She settled back down into the plump mattress that had been struggling to lull her to sleep since she had arrived. Last night it had finally succeeded in bringing her comfort. Unfortunately, that comfort was now marred by a slight damp feeling between her legs. Rowan looked to the glistening wetness of her fingers and sighed. 

She had found the partner in crime to her dream and she wasn’t sure how she was supposed to proceed. Cleaning up after herself wasn’t exactly an option and even if it was, she wouldn’t know where to begin. At the same time, broaching the subjects to the maids wasn’t exactly an easy ask, either. What was she supposed to say? 

Rowan threw off the covers in frustration and shuffled out of bed. It was a surprisingly difficult challenge due to the softness of the mattress but she managed. Now free, Rowan tried coming up with some ideas of what to say while offering them up to her highly judgmental reflection. 

“Hey, Avra, I just masturbated! Could you get someone to change my sheets, please?” That was her third attempt and she couldn’t help but cringe. Even just saying it to herself sounded ridiculous. “I mean, it’s a totally normal thing, isn’t it?” she mumbled to herself. “I’m sure most of them have done it at least once and it’s not like I had sex. That’d be a much bigger mess. Maybe I’m overthinking this and dinnae need to say a thing? But what if they gossip?”

Rowan needed to clear her head and get away from the scene of the crime before anyone realised she was awake. It wasn’t that she felt like she had done anything wrong, she was just extremely embarrassed and it would be clear to anyone that saw her. Seeing her might not even be necessary for people to feel her embarrassment; Projection was just one of those abilities she hadn’t learned to control; that’s why she needed to clear her head.

Unfortunately, an army of vigilant servants stood between her and her non-existent destination. 

“I should probably have one of those,” she muttered quietly to herself.

That was the first step and it was a rather essential one. Unfortunately, her options were rather limited on account of not really knowing what there was to do or see around the palace. Then she realised there was a place that she had been neglecting on account of time that would be perfect for the task at hand; somewhere that could guide her emotions away from embarrassment. There were other, almost perfect locations, but they would need to wait. 

Sorry, Amran.

For now, however, she had her destination; the Royal Gardens awaited her arrival. Before she could leave, however, there was still one thing she needed to do that could put her entire operation in jeopardy; bathing. Unfortunately, it was very much a requirement, given the fact that she was still a wet sticky mess.

Before she took her dip into the large bath, Rowan readied herself some casual clothes in the form of a burgundy tunic with a gold trim and midnight blue leggings. She also made sure to set aside the badge that marked her as a guest of the crown as a just in case.

She didn’t dwell in the water for long. Her embarrassment had started to die down, but she was set on not alerting anyone for the time being. It was actually nice to have time to herself. Occasionally that is. Too much time alone is an isolationist hell that Rowan wouldn’t wish on anyone that struggled with loneliness. It’s just that being around people can be its own form of draining or terrifying hell due to the sheer weight and magnitude of people’s emotions. Rowan’s own were already enough for a small army so some momentary respite from everyone else sometimes gave her the chance to centre herself. It also gave her the chance for her to vent any excess emotions without anyone seeing. That was her hope at least; she hadn’t had much opportunity to be alone and free over the past five years after all. 

Once she was ready Rowan enacted her escape plan which, in a mirror of her destination, started in her own private garden. It was an enclosed space to offer some open luxury without sacrificing the palace’s defences. However, such defences were designed to keep people out, not in, especially a determined Ardent. Furthermore, the enclosed nature of the garden meant that Rowan also had access to the upper levels. All she needed was an open window and zero witnesses. It was a rather fun challenge despite stealth not exactly being her forte.

Somewhat surprisingly, the open window came without much difficulty. In fact, Rowan had several to choose from. Of course that introduces its own suite of problems, which became very apparent with the first window she tried. In hindsight, the evidence all pointed towards trying any of the windows besides that one, but the moans fell on deaf ears as she climbed the large cherry tree that had made the choice for her.

As she pulled herself up on the window sill she discovered a young man enthusiastically thrusting into one of the maids against the far wall. At least Rowan guessed that she was a maid by the hastily removed uniform that still clung to her body. Rowan found herself entranced by the rhythmic measure of the man’s hips and the way he passionately kissed the woman’s neck as she clawed at his back.{

The couple nearly caught Rowan staring as they made their way to the bed but she managed to drop down and hang from the window before they spotted her. That’s what she hoped at least, but it was enough to remind her of the task at hand and that the window had been removed from the equation. Before retreating back to the garden she took one last peek before thanking the Goddess that the tree had provided extra cover from everywhere else that she could have been seen from.

The second time she put in a little more thought into choosing an escape route rather than taking the easiest route. It was more challenging than she had hoped as her mind kept wandering to the couple upstairs and how they were rather brave having somewhat audible sex with an open window. Then again, they were practically fucking against the door so they probably weren’t trying to keep the deed a secret.

Rowan muttered something to herself as she recalled some novels she had read when she was a child. Admittedly they were significantly less explicit than what she had just witnessed. 

“Aren’t maids and noblemen supposed to be some kind of forbidden romance,” she said quietly before sighing in frustration. “All this sex is far too serendipitous. I’m not still dreaming, am I?” Rowan pinched herself to make sure only to call into question how reliable a method it was for checking wakefulness; everything else felt real after all. 

Her only choice after that was to try and focus again. She had seven windows to choose from, six if you discounted the one she had already tried.

“This would have been so much easier if I’d actually been up there more than once.” Unfortunately there hadn’t been much reason or freedom to explore the palace in the short time she had been staying there. Despite that, it seemed likely that most of the windows would be leading to bedrooms, offices and other private spaces for various guests, officials, and diplomats that called the Dusk Wing home, none of which were ideal. 

After thinking about it for a little bit longer, Rowan realised that would need to risk being a voyeur to get a better vantage point on the windows. Ideally, climbing the tree again would let her find an empty corridor on the other side of one of the open windows. Empty in the sense of zero people that is. A completely empty corridor would probably weird her out.

As she climbed the tree, Rowan did her best to remain as quiet at possible so that she didn’t alarm the couple in the nearby room. To further aid in not alarming them, Rowan also made sure to stay on the other side of the tree and not climb quite as high. Unsurprisingly she did see a couple of people once she was in position including an aged man sleeping at a desk.

Rowan was actually a little worried about him as his window was one of the open ones. Alas there wasn’t really anything she could do about it so she instead continued with her search. As her head panned towards the row of windows above her apartments, she found what she had been looking for in the form of a hallway lined with vases and small decorative figures on either side and paintings between the doors on the far wall. It had some traffic but not too much in this still early hour. All Rowan had had to do was time it right and she’d be free.

With a route in mind, Rowan hopped down from the tree and made her way back towards her apartments so that she could climb up. Before getting there, however, she decided to take a slight detour by way of the old man’s study. It was an awkward climb but Rowan didn’t want him catching cold when she could have at least mitigated some of the risk to him. It was a corner window which made things a little easier in the face of keeping quiet as it allowed her to stem up the wall. Typically she would have preferred running up the wall but she wanted to avoid any potential surplus noise. There was another advantage to stemming in that it would be easier to hold herself up with legs as opposed to her arms as she pushed the window closed.

A couple of minutes later the window to the man’s study was almost completely shut. All it needed was to be fastened in position. With that done, Rowan got back onto the task at hand. The way to the hallway required a different approach as the window was more central. Fortunately, there was a light fixture that Rowan was able to mount for some extra height. Doing so provided her with most of the height that she needed buy she was still short a few feet. She had the option of jumping but, though she knew how disastrous that could be if she failed. Furthermore it was far too ‘loud’ an action when she was trying to be stealthy. That left her dependent on the very small gaps in the stonework where the mortar had broken away over time. Fortunately, Rowan had rather small hands and a surprising level of strength. She still had to be careful, however, because Seres and the maids would throw a fit if she damaged her nails immediately before a ball.

Rowan started by clawing her left hand to get full coverage of a hold just above her while smearing with her right foot to get some extra height. That gave her a nice hold for her right hand, letting clamber up the rest of the way. She had to hang there for a second as one of the servants to pass. Then she pulled herself up, extremely grateful that the window was still open. 

To avoid any potential awkwardness Rowan walked in the opposite direction to the servant only to stop dead in her tracks as someone else walked onto the corridor. Rowan instantly found herself blushing as her eyes fell on the maid from earlier, now fully dressed.

Seeing a flustered Rowan, the young maid stopped and asked her, “Can I help you?”

“No, I’m good,” Rowan replied a little too quickly.

“Okay then,” the maid replied, resuming her path down the hallway only to be stopped a few seconds later.

“Actually,” said Rowan, “I’m a little lost.”

“Oh?”

“You see, I’ve only been here for a few days and I felt like going for a walk, but I don’t really know my way around yet and I wasn’t really paying attention to where I was going when I had the bright idea of visiting the Royal Gardens, but I don’t know how to get the from here.” 

By the time Rowan had finished speaking she realised that she had practically forgotten to breathe, a feat which garnered her an impressed look from the made.

After waiting a few seconds to give Rowan a chance to breathe, the maid responded, “If it’s the Royal Gardens that you seek, I can take you there.”

“I wouldn’t want to distract from your other duties,” Rowan replied with a slight cough in an attempt to hide any signs of embarrassment or insinuation from the maid.

“Worry not, I can put aside some time to assist an honoured guest. My duty is to serve, after all.”

“I’m sure I’d manage with just a couple of directions.”

“I’d feel more confident guiding you myself.”

This maid is impossible! 

Rowan was not prepared for this encounter. A random maid or servant would have been one thing, but this one particular maid at this particular time was the one of the most awkward potential encounters imaginable and she wasn’t getting any of Rowan’s hints.

In the end, Rowan gave up and let the maid take the lead. Her name was Avalin and Rowan learned rather quickly that she was surprisingly talkative. In just a short amount of time she learned that Avalin typically worked front of house which led Rowan to believe that her sojourn to the dusk wing was just for pleasure. Thinking about it, guiding Rowan was a good excuse to bring her back to where she was supposed to be working.

Avalin was still talking as they walked through the large Palace doors en route to the gardens. “Even to this day,” she was saying, “I don’t know why they call the front of the palace the day wing. Like I understand the day part because it fits in with how the other areas of the palace are named after times of day, but it isn’t a wing like those areas.”

“Maybe it’s a leftover from when the palace was smaller?” Rowan suggested.

“I hadn’t considered that,” Avalin replied.

“I remember reading about it in a book when I was younger,” Rowan admitted.

“Ah. I’m not really much of a reader. Never had much reason to be really. Anyway, before I lament my lack of childhood reading, the Royal Gardens are just up ahead through that gate. I must get back to work now, but if you need any assistance, ask any of the staff on hand and they’ll be able to aid you or send for help.”

“Thank you,” said Rowan with a smile, bidding Avalin farewell and making her way to the garden. She was glad to be relatively alone again. There were other people around as well which made things ideal as it meant she wasn’t completely isolated. Anything was better than isolation.

The garden was sectioned off from the rest of the palace grounds by way of a large sweeping gate and elaborately patterned hedge walls. Somehow they had managed to combine various differently coloured plants to paint a whole array of beautiful patterns on a canvas of verdant green. Standing on either side of the gate were two ceremonial guards wielding spears. They looked a little funny with their overly serious expressions and obnoxiously feathered hats. Even so, Rowan couldn’t help but feel like they were exceptionally deadly in spite of that. They also let her walk right past them without so much as a glance, at least not any that Rowan saw.

Once inside, Rowan was treated to a sight beyond her wildest imaginings. It was as if she had been thrown into a fantasy world in between blinks. Immediately before her lay a vast lawn on either side of the central path that led towards a fountain. 

As she walked along the path, Rowan could see hints of colour amidst the grass. It was difficult to see exactly what the colour was however, as she lacked the height to get a good look. Furthermore, she was a wee bit more focused on the statues that lined the path. Unlike normal statues, these ones looked like they had been shattered, yet they still held a semblance of form. That is to say that the parts floated in the air, connected only by wires to keep them in shape and prevent them from drifting apart. It gave them the appearance of heroes that had been broken down but still refused to give up. That was Rowan’s interpretation at least and it only added to her awe. It was her first time seeing Gravitational Resonance after all, and it was a lot to take in. She had read about it before, but the idea had always seemed farfetched. Now she had no choice other than acceptance. 

To top it off, the statues weren’t even the last of the fantastical elements that Rowan has been presented with. The fountain at the end of the path gave rise to a herd of glimmering, sea green, horse-like animals that seemed to gallop out of the water. As Rowan got closer she came to realise that the animals were made almost entirely out of water. If it weren’t for her brain insisting that there had to be something else to give the water shape she would have just left it at magic. Instead, she’d need to look deeper when she had the chance.

The water for the fountain was provided by a artificial cascade waterfall. There were stairs on either side of the cascade leading to the upper levels. To the flanks of the stairs were rows and rows of tiered flowers, most of which Rowan had never seen before, and they were all arranged in such away to complement the surrounding flowers. All in all it was a feast for the eyes.

Rowan walked up the stairs to yet another incredible view. Unlike the lower level, this level was divided into quadrants by the same stream that was feeding the fountain below. Each quadrant bore a different theme: day and night, dawn and twilight. The twilight quadrant bore similarities to her private garden, only scaled up and much more impressive which was no small feat. In the centre of the four quadrants, stood a brilliant white and gold pavilion with what looked to a rather impractical sundial on top.

Rowan decided that the pavilion was a perfect place to collect her thoughts and recharge. It was, after all, relatively quiet and out of the way of the gardeners who were already out in full force; probably so that they could get the majority of their work done while things were less lively. 

She took a seat and closed her eyes, letting her mind drift. Hopefully doing so would allow her to sort through her thoughts and feelings at least a little bit. 

Being an Ardent was hard. Going through life with your emotions turned to eleven was exhausting and that’s ignoring the added challenge of being overly sensitive to even the slightest emotional stimulus. There were times when it became so much that Rowan couldn’t even express everything she was feeling. Then again, Rowan wasn’t sure that was all because of her being an Ardent. She was like this even before she Awakened, just not quite as extreme. Granted, that may have been because the Naliir bloodline was pushing her to be more like an Ardent even back then. There were so many possibilities.

Instead of dwelling on the challenges of being an Ardent and how her bloodline may have influenced her, she cast her thoughts to her immediate family. Fortune had reunited her with her brother. Now only Tehri and her father remained. She wanted to see them, to hold them in her arms. She hoped that she would be able to get some aid from the Queen to help in that regard once things had settled down in the palace. 

The first step would probably be Næmyris and her father. It was a fairly simple trip after all, almost completely river bound. Rowan also wanted to see her mother’s grave. Tehri on the other hand required finding first which was easier said than done. It didn’t help that the only lead that Rowan had is that she last saw Tehri five years ago in a forest that was probably between Næmyris and the east coast. Rowan just hoped that was enough to narrow down the search. 

Alas, only time could tell and the living weren’t the only family on Rowan’s mind. She looked deep into soul and thought of Rina. With a small spark of hope she spoke out to her lost twin.

“Hey, Rina. I don’t know if you can hear me or if I’ll be able to hear you, but I had to try.”

There was no answer.

“Well I wasn’t expecting this to work straight away. It’s not like I know how this works anyway.”

Again, nothing.

“I guess I’ll just speak and hope you can hear me. Maybe I should have tried this while holding Elan Fiir or while my emotions were boiling over. I think I’ve only ever heard you when I was in a super charged emotional state. Any ideas why? Some other time, maybe. Anyway, I wanted to ask about a few things and I’ve just had an idea of how to get through to you.”

This time, Rowan didn’t wait for a response and instead started to remove her clothes. 

“Some genius I am. Coming here was supposed to help me sort through my embarrassment, not make me more embarrassed. Can you…”

“Of course I can hear you! You’re the one that never listens. “

“Well that worked,” said Rowan with a small measure of surprise. 

“Probably because you’re getting all flustered about flashing a bunch of gardeners. Even I can tell that your mind has been in the gutter all day. Now I’m all worked up because of you.”

“I cannae help it. Also, gross.”

“Not like that. Now ask me what you wanted to know so I can tell you. And be quick about it before I retreat to the non perverted part of your soul.”

“Wow, rude.”

“I can leave now and your nudity would be for nought.”

“Please don’t,” Rowan pleaded.

“Fine! Just hurry up. It’s cold in here.”

“You can feel the cold?”

“It was a joke.”

“Oh, sorry. Anyway, way back when, you said you were incomplete. What exactly did you mean by that?”

“You’ve already guessed some of it. When I died, I was still complete which meant that my soul could mature alongside you. Then the eclipse happened and I was able to act with a little bit of independence. It was nice to have some freedom for a change. But then they killed Mother. Even in death she she refused to abandon you. If I hadn’t stopped her, she would have called upon the Goddess and our ancestors to take her entire being into Elan Fiir. She would have sacrificed everything.”

“That’s stupid!”

“I know and I refused to let her do it. At the same time, I knew I couldn’t fully convince her, not in the time we had, nor could I take her place.”

“Why not?”

“Because my soul doesn’t have an essence to Resonate with. At least not one that has any meaning on its own.”

“Are you being cryptic on purpose or is it just me?”

“You’re the one that wanted answers. To put it simply, my essence gives power though sacrifice. I died, but in return, you’re a better Ardent.”

“That’s not at all grim.”

“It’s true though. Anyway, after connecting with Mother, I reminded her that by sacrificing herself, she was just delaying the inevitable.”

“Not even that. She’d be bound to the sword even when we’ve moved on.”

“Exactly. So instead I suggested that we split the load. Part of me would strengthen her essence in the soul and the other part would reinforce her soul on the other side. That would leave this small fragment with you.”

“Do you think I could talk to her?

“The part in the sword for sure. She’s already gotten through to you once. With a fair bit of difficulty I imagine.”

“Rude.”

“Deal with it.”

“Could I talk with the version of you within the sword?”

“I’m the only me that is still me. With that said, I think your embarrassment is about to be deafening.”

“Excuse me?”

“In three, two, one.”

Out of nowhere, Rowan heard someone clear their throat behind her. She turned to see Avra standing there with a stern look to her face.

“Good morning, Miss Rowan. You do realise that you are in the Royal Gardens, do you not?”

“Aye?” Rowan wasn’t exactly sure why she answered with a rising tone, but it felt appropriate. 

“Do you also realise that you are stark naked?”

“Ah right. About that. There’s a reason for that.”

Rowan was quickly turning crimson as she fumbled around for an appropriate answer.

“Be that as it may, the Royal Gardens are no place for such overt exhibitionism. That is of course assuming that you have not been granted some sort of exceptional status by Her Majesty when I wasn’t looking.”

“I don’t think so?”

“I thought as much. Now put your clothes back on. All this nudity is confusing the gardeners. They did, however, request that I pass on their compliments.”

This time Rowan invented a completely new shade of red with her embarrassment. Meanwhile, Avra bore the faintest hint of a smirk as she sore Rowan’s reaction.

“While you process that, I’d like to request that you inform me or another member of staff assigned to you when you decide to go wandering. The princess wishes to break fast with you and she was greatly disappointed when we informed her that you had disappeared. I imagine she is quite hungry now.”

“Sorry.”

“Apologise to her, not me. And your tunic is on back to front.”

A minute or two later, Rowan was dressed again and en route to starting her day proper.

Author’s Notes: Hello again. Its been another massive delay and I’m really sorry. I hate being unreliable with releases but as I mentioned in the last few chapters I returned to work around a month and a half ago. Unfortunately, it completely destroyed me physically, emotionally, and mentally. Anyone that has spoken to me knows that I was not in a good place and it was massively impacting my ability to write. It got to the point of being too much so I decided to resign last week. Now I’m getting back to a point where I can better manage my mental health and just as importantly, enjoy writing again. I’m looking forward to sharing more Ardent Tears with you all very soon.

Previous Chapter <-> Next Chapter

Chapter 20

In the brief moments where Rowan was alone she realised that she still wasn’t dressed. This left her with the highly awkward conundrum of whether or not she should rush to get dressed. In the end she decided against it as she was convinced that her brother and Seres would walk in while she was half naked or even completely naked if she was unlucky. Instead she stayed wrapped in the blanket that had kept her modest in front of the queen.

As if to spite her decision, her brother and Seres took their sweet time. Every agonising second that she waited felt like a never ending minute that begged Rowan to expose herself. She persevered for five whole minutes when the door finally opened. Just in time as well as she was on the verge of breaking and neither of them knocked. They did, however, make up for it by presenting her with breakfast.

“Some eggs and honey roast gammon with a couple of broiled fried tomatoes for my dear sister,” Tyris announced as he sauntered in with a tray, closely followed by Seres.

“Along with some pastries, jam, and clotted cream,” Seres added with a tray of her own.

“This isn’t really necessary,” Rowan stammered.

“It really is,” Seres replied. “I’m not about to have you collapsing on me again.”

“Now hurry and eat,” Tyris chided. 

“Fine!” Rowan harrumphed with a roll of her eyes as she started to dig in. “Am I really supposed to finish this?”

“Doctor’s orders,” Tyris replied.

“And mine,” Seres added. “The crown demands it.”

“I didn;t realise that the crown was so demanding,” said Rowan with a slight smile.

“It’s your fault for scaring me,” Seres sniffled in response.

“Sorry.”

“You’re forgiven.”

“Thanks.”

“But only if you finish enough of your meal.”

“You know,” Tyris interrupted before Rowan could respond, “I never believed that I would see a member of the royal family in such casual conversation.”

“Well consider yourself privileged,” said Rowan a little too quickly as she started coughing on a piece of gammon.

“Here,” said Seres whilst handing Rowan a glass of water, “drink this.”

“Thanks,” Rowan replied as her coughing fit started to ease up.

“I swear you are trying to give us a heart attack,” Tyris laughed.

“It’s not funny,” Rowan objected.

“Oh, but it is, dear sister.”

Seres gave him a look in response. “I’m not laughing,” she said.

“It seems like I have at least one ally in these trying times,” sighed Rowan dramatically. 

“And I appear to be outnumbered. Moving swiftly on.”

“Excuse me?”

“The conversation was nearing a dead end so I thought we could just move on.”

“You can’t just run away from the conversation,” Rowan objected.

“There was nothing to run away from and we didn’t just come here to give you breakfast and see how you were doing.”

“That’s right!” Seres exclaimed. “We wanted to talk about your performance. I have so many questions.”

“As do I,” Tyris added,

“I’m not sure how well I’ll be able to answer; I was in some sort of trance.”

“About that.”

“Yes?”

“It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.”

“And probably unlike anything you will ever see again,” replied Rowan.

“I’m not surprised,” Seres interjected, “the Resonance from that performance was out of this world.”

“Your mother said something to that effect. What was it like?”

“Incredible,” Tyris answered while Seres said, “Breathtaking.”

“Really?”

“You managed to move and dance with untold martial grace for the better part of an hour…”

“… whilst harmonising every single emotion that you could draw upon.”

“When you say it like that.”

Hearing what they both had to say, Rowan knew it was true. Even if she couldn’t remember exactly what had happened, it was the only thing that could explain what she felt at the time. Which is to say, everything. It was also a solid answer for why she had collapsed and why her body ached so much. The more she thought about it, the more it both terrified her and filled her with wonder.

“I don’t think I want to try that again,” she said.

“Don’t worry, I wasn’t planning on asking you to,” Tyris replied.

“Nor I,” said Seres.

“We know that you probably don’t remember the details, but what did it feel like?”

“I’m not sure,” Rowan answered and she really wasn’t. Even from what she could recall it had felt like every single experience and emotion had flashed into her very being to fuel the dance. Part of her was scared that she had consumed everything. however the deeper she looked, the more apparent their lingering presence became. That was a small token of relief, but it was not enough to fully quash her nerves. She didn’t want to forget and even with the memories being fresh in her mind, she feared they would vanish in an instant.

Upon seeing that she was struggling, Seres gave Rowan a smile. “Take your time, Rowan. There’s no need to rush. Maybe eat some more while you think.”

“Thanks,” Rowan replied, taking a bite out of pastry. After a few moments of eating and collecting her thoughts in the comforting presence of Seres and her brother, she started speaking again. “A lot happened. It was all so overwhelming. But at the time, I wasn’t really processing it. Not consciously that is. At the same time it feels like all my feelings at the time were emblazoned on to my soul or something.The only other thing I can say is that I let instinct and Elan Fiir guide me. Whatever it was that I did, the way I moved, it was how I was meant to move. I don’t know why, but it felt right.”

“Did you feel another presence there with you?” asked Seres out of the blue.

“A what now?” Rowan replied.

“A presence,” answered Seres simply.

“I don’t think so,” said Rowan with a slight frown on her face.

“Are you sure?”

“I’m not sure what the relevance of the question is, Your Highness?” said Tyris, interrupting Seres.

“Stop talking and let me think,” Rowan complained. “Just before I passed out, I think I heard my Ma ’s voice.”

Tyris gave her a questioning look while Seres took it in her stride.After a moment, she started speaking. “I want you to listen to me, Rowan. And you, Tyris. This might be very important.”

“Okay…”

“I think that your mother may be Soulforged with Elan Fiir.”

The two Naliir siblings looked at Seres and replied in unison. “Excuse me?”

“When you first touched the sword, Rowan, I saw the myriad ways it Resonated with you. The smaller Resonances were easy to explain considering what you have told me about the sword; they were the remnants of your ancestors whose ‘tears’ were forged into the blade. However I also saw two much larger Resonances amongst the sea of smaller ones. Alone neither one of them would make for a Soulforged weapon, but together they harmonise to form a gestalt that is capable of the feat. I don’t know how but that is the only explanation that I can think of.”

“I’m not sure I follow,” Rowan interjected.

“Well I’m doing my best to explain. Let’s see. So Soulforging binds a person’s soul to an object and imbues it with their essence and in some cases, their legend. That is to say that a person’s essence is shaped both by the individual and the perceptions of those around them. This lets the object and the user draw on that person’s essence. You told Tyris that Elan Fiir felt heavier or more massive when you were swinging it, right?”

Rowan nodded in response.

“Well I’m guessing that was because you were subconsciously channelling your mother’s weight or something and adding it to either yourself or the sword. You were probably doing the same with her strength and speed to some extent.”

“And the dancing?” Rowan asked.

“In part.”

Rowan gave Seres a sad look. “So it wasn’t really me then, was it?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You may as well have.”

“Stop, Rowan, and just listen to what I still have to say. The dead cannot override the living. If that dance had none of you in it, it would have been a mess. The skills of another can only add to our own and guide us. Plus, I’ve seen you fight and I could see it all in the way you moved. I firmly believe that that dance was the combination of your own experience and those that you were able to draw on and that is no small feat.”

“The princess is right, Rowan. Back when she was alive, I never once saw Mother move anything like that.” 

“That’s a small comfort I guess. But there is still one last matter that pains me.”

“Go on,” Seres prompted.

“If it really is Ma, then that means she won’t ever be able to truly pass on, right?”

“I don’t think so,” Seres answered. “Remember what I said about neither of the Resonances being enough? That means that somehow, neither one was a complete essence so it’s possible that the remaining essence is enough to let what’s left of her soul materialise on the other side.”

Rowan looked at her doubtfully. “You don’t seem so sure…”

“Well this isn’t exactly a case with much in the way of precedence and I’ve not really had the chance to study Resonance these past few years apart from what they wanted me to know,” said Seres with some bite.

“Sorry,” said Rowan with a downcast look.

“No, sorry I shouldn’t have responded like that. I know this is a lot to take in and it all pretty much conjecture.”

“It will take more research,” Tyris mused.

“That’s a rather matter of fact way of looking at it,” said Rowan, trying to hide the notes of bitterness in her voice.

“It’s the only way to get answers.”

“He’s right unfortunately and you are the only one that can really do it. I’ll do what I can to help but I’ll need to learn more.”

“Thank you.”

“On that note, however, I’m still not sure how you heard your mother’s voice. The only people able to communicate with the other side outside of an eclipse are those with the Gift of the Spirit.”

“But you said that she isn’t on the other side,” Rowan countered.

Tyris shook his head. “It’s effectively the same thing,” he rebutted.

“There must be another bridge. Maybe the essence had the Gift?” pondered Seres.

“Hang on a second!” Rowan exclaimed suddenly, a light shining in her eyes.

“What is it, Rowan?” Tyris asked

“I think I know who the other person is!”

“Oh?”

“Rina!”

“That’s impossible,” replied Tyris with furrowed brows.

“Who’s Rina?” Seres asked.

“My sister!”

“I thought your sister was called Tehri?”

“Well yeah, obviously. But I’m talking about my other sister.”

Rowan had said it as if it was a known fact which only made Seres more confused. “Other sister?” she asked.

“Yeah!”

“Rowan had a twin sister,” Tyris explained. “Unfortunately, due to some peculiarities with our family, Rina passed away at only a few months old.”

“Okay, that answers one of my questions. As for the other; why do you think she is the other essence?”

“Because I’ve spoken to her.”

“Excuse me?” said Tyris and Seres in unerring unison. 

“Well it wasn’t speaking exactly, but after I Awakened she would occasionally speak to me when my emotions were really heightened but not so heightened that everything she said was practically landing on deaf ears. She said that she wasn’t complete and that’s why it was difficult for her to talk to me. And apparently I’m really bad at listening to within my soul so she kinda had to shout to get through to me at times.”

“That does explain why it sometimes looked like you were related to yourself,” Seres remarked. 

“And I still don’t understand a thing,” added Tyris with a shake of his head.

“Well you don’t need to understand,” said Rowan with a pointed look before turning to Seres. “What do you mean I looked like I was related to myself?”

“Relational Resonance is aways super obvious, especially when it’s a blood relation or achieved through a blood tie ritual.”

“A what now?”

“It’s what people do when they get married or adopt.”

“Makes sense.”

“It doesn’t do much beyond facilitating familial bonds but it is visible if you know what to look for.”

“And have the requisite eyes for seeing Resonance. The Mark of the Goddess isn’t exactly common, Seres.”

“I didn’t mean it like that, silly.”

“Well that’s new,” Tyris remarked.

“Shut up, Tyris!”

“I’m just saying that this is a surprisingly familial relationship.”

“Don’t mind her, Tyris. You’re not entirely wrong either; Rowan has been like a sister to me over the past five years.”

“It was the least I could do.”

“What she means is that she needed it too.”

Seres was right about that; Rowan wouldn’t have survived long without familial bonds. The more she thought about it the more it seemed like she and Seres were one step away from a blood tie.

“Well that’s good,” Tyris smiled. “However, I think we’ve meandered quite a bit with this conversation so it might be an idea to return to the topic at hand.”

“Aye, that we should” said Rowan in response. “What were we talking about again?”

“Elan Fiir,” Seres answered.

“Oh yeah. What about it?”

“Well I think we covered some of the stranger aspects of what you went through but it might be an idea to start from the beginning.”

“Like with the sword cut against that dummy?”

“Exactly. What amazed me with that was the speed, precision and power, but not the end result.”

“Why is that?”

“Well in the hands of a Naliir, Elan Fiir is an extremely sharp sword.”

“Sharp enough to cut metal?”

“Depends on the metal.”

“Steel?” suggested Rowan with an optimistic smile.

Tyrie laughed in response. “If it’s bad quality it might and that’s a very big if. I was being mostly facetious by saying it can cut through metal.”

Rowan looked down with disappointment at Tyris’ admissions.

“Let me explain,” Tyris added with the hope of covering his ass. “While Elan Fiir has several properties that steel does not, the only advantage that it has when it comes to biting into something is how sharp it is. It does however, have a rather unique property that makes it easier to cut the things that it can cut.”

“Oh?”

“The blade has a variable friction coefficient so when you cut into something it glides right through it.”

“As if there was nothing there.”

“Exactly.”

“Wow!” remarked Seres. “When you add everything together, it sounds like it’s right out of a story.”

“You can say that again,” Rowan laughed.

“The story of it being forged is a legend in our family,” Tyris explained. 

“I’d love to hear it sometime,” said Seres with a slight smile.

“I’ll tell it to you some other time,” Rowan promised. “Was there anything else that I should know about Elan Fiir or my performance?”

“Well you don’t need to worry about people stealing it and using it against you,” Tyris answered. “It may as well be a rather light blunt object when used by someone outside of the family. It also won’t cut you accidentally.”

“That’s useful.”

“There was one other thing,” Seres added. “During the performance, the sword may have ignited.”

“Ignited?”

“I think it might serve as a conduit for your powers. A medium that you can channel them through. Though I’m guessing that not every emotion will have an effect that translates well. Oh gods, the idea of getting the impression that your sword is blushing at me is mortifying. Please keep it out of sight when Lady Alena is in the room.”

“Seres!” Rowan exclaimed, “My brother is right there.”

“Should I list the other people that you have the hots for then? Or maybe only the ones that might reciprocate?”

No words came from Rowan’s crimson face. Instead she dove into her covers and refused to move.

“I think that’s our cue to leave,” Tyris remarked, trying to stifle his laughter.

“And here I was thinking that some embarrassment would do her good.”

“I’m sure it will. In which case, maybe I should tell you some stories from her childhood.”

“I think I’d like that.”

The only response from Rowan came in the form of highly muffled thumping that had little impact against the soft mattress. 

“Well let’s start with the legendary quest that Rowan went on with her two friends in search of a great prize…”

This time Rowan threw off the covers and screamed, “Get out!” in crimson embarrassment. Seres and her brother were all too happy to oblige, confident that their work had been done. The purpose of the work was a mystery to Rowan, but their smug expressions drove her crazy.

*****

The next couple of days were spent following a doctor regimented plan to help get her ready for the ball. It was essential that she gained a little more weight and had enough stamina to last her through the night. Neither were going to be easy tasks to accomplish, especially in such a small time frame, but Seres had been adamant. However, in a show of solidarity, Seres was going through the same treatment.

Overall, the process left a lot to be desired, especially when it came to meals as they were the linchpin that held everything together. They were dense in nutritional value and enriched with ingredients that manipulated the metabolism in bizarre ways. Unfortunately, a lot of it tasted extremely unpleasant, which put a significant dampener on the more appealing dishes. Rowan likened the worst of it to an over-ripe sourgrape mixed with highly pungent blood cheese and fermented drakiir liver.

“No wonder this isn’t marketed as a quick weight fix,” Rowan groaned after one such meal.

“I’m pretty sure I can feel my body digesting the food and distributing me.”

“You’re telling me! My boobs feel like they’ve doubled in size!”

“That isn’t exactly an impressive feat,” replied Seres in a mock tone.

Rowan immediately gave her a look. “Wow, rude!”

After a second or two of them staring at each other, then burst into laughter.

When they calmed down, Rowan took on a more serious tone. “We must have gained a stone between us.”

“Probably. I’m just glad we don’t need to do this tomorrow.”

“Well we still have the Muscular Resonance Therapy Later.”

“And dance lessons after that. I know your mother taught you some ballroom dances but neither of us have really had the chance to practice any of that.”

“Don’t remind me,” sighed Rowan.

“And after our baths we need to get measured and fitted for our dresses.”

“Do we really need to stand around for hours in our underwear for that?”

“Stop complaining. The dressmakers are already working overtime to make sure we are ready so we can at least give them the courtesy of putting up with the discomfort while they work their magic.”

“Fine,” Rowan huffed with a roll of her eyes. “At least we’ll get some nice clothes from it.”

“That we will,” Seres smiled. “Though I think it will take more than a few hours to get a reasonably sized wardrobe.”

“At least we actually have some variety now.”

“True.”

The rest of their day continued much as they had discussed and they were finally free from their trials and tribulations. Rowan fell into a deep sleep that night; one filled with extremely vivid dreams. She dreamt of being reunited with Tehri. It was a happy dream filled with far too many flowers. Part of her felt that it was almost depressingly idyllic. And that was all ignoring mind’s interpretation of a grown-up version of Tehri. With absolutely no reference for how how she might have changed, her mind created an uncanny fusion of herself and Tehri scaled up to the right height without sense for proper relative proportions. What made it worse is that Rowan could still recognise it as Tehri. She also knew how much it would offend Tehri’s artistic sensibilities; it was already offending Rowan’s and she was the wrong kind of artist.

She also went through several dream sequences where she alternated between captivity and enacting her vengeance on faceless men and women in regal clothing. For every lord she disemboweled she was back in the torture room. For every lady she cut down she relived Anri’s final moments. Then it all came to a head as the events started to coalesce and happen simultaneously while still being paradoxically distinct. 

Once again her dreams shifted; this time to a brighter future and notably more imminent future. She stood in the middle of an impossibly large ballroom wearing an incredibly beautiful and impractical dress that may have weighed as much as she did. She danced what felt like overly stuffy and formal court dances that were strangely nothing like any of the ones that she had ever learned. Instead they felt considerably like the dances from some of the stories she had read when she was younger where the author didn’t really know how to describe a dance properly and instead just explained the steps. Feeling overly restricted by the formality, Rowan ripped off her dress to reveal something much more sensible and embraced the freedom to move as she so desired. With each passing moment she pulled someone new in her rhythm. By the end of it she was doing much, much more than just dancing. That is to say that she was dancing in the sheets. Her partner kept changing and on occasion she found herself experimenting with multiple partners at the same time. She explored their bodies and they explored hers. Intimately. 

As the dream edged towards the peak, Rowan woke up.

Author’s Notes: Hello everyone. Before I go into more jovial matters and my own thoughts on this chapter I feel I need to be serious for a moment. Simply put, I’ve just been told that I need to have surgery to resolve an issue that won’t fix itself. I’ve been told that it likely isn’t major but it will be under general anaesthetic. This is conjunction with returning to work is why this chapter was delayed which sucks because it happened immediately after my mental health break when I said things will be returning to normal for which I’m really sorry. I’m going to do my best but I want you to all understand the possibility that I may miss an update or two because of surgery. Hopefully it will only impact my non-writing work, but I can’t promise anything.

On to the more jovial aspects and chapter discussions. I had a fair bit of fun with this chapter with it being a follow-up to the big Elan Fiir showcase. For those that don’t know, which is most of you, Elan Fiir is one of the first things I created in regards to the story besides the basis for Rowan and the magic system. It is also the story’s namesake in the language that I’ve been working on and off for the past few years now as Elan Fiir translates as Ardent Tears. I’m also looking forward to writing what comes next.

P.s. 5 foot tall girls should not work in warehouses yet here I am. The company has been great but the work is awful.

Previous Chapter <-> Next Chapter


Chapter 19

Rowan stood in the training grounds, a gentle breeze caressing her face. She held Elan Fiir in her hands. It was an exhilarating feeling; difficult to describe. Stronger and more nimble. Weightier and more graceful. The Resonance of the sword ripple through every inch of her body.

“It’s bizarre, isn’t it?” Tyris asked from where he was standing, just across from her near some training dummies. “Even with only the familial Resonance, I could still feel the latent power. You must be experiencing that tenfold; if not more.”

Rowan looked at Tyris with a pensive expression. “Maybe? It’s kind of like an extension of myself? Or maybe I’m an extension of it?”

“Well pondering on the matter isn’t going to answer your questions. Let me move out of the way and you can try out some practice swings. I want to make sure you still have proper form after all these years.”

Rowan grimaced at that last sentence. She had forgotten how strict and proper Tyris was with martial skills and she hadn’t exactly prioritised conventional techniques over the past five years. There wasn’t much she could do about it, however. And realistically, the forms that Tyris had taught her were designed with normal people in mind. Surely Ardents and Stoics would fight differently? 

She looked around, hoping that someone would answer her silent question. Instead she was treated to the sound of sparring and combat drills. Rowan didn’t recognise any of the other people training; they were all from the myriad armed forces and were very much focused on looking prim and proper for their audience. 

On the edge of the training grounds, Seres, the prodigal princess sat with the Awakened Pair from yesterday standing at her flanks. It was clear which one was which from the way they stood, even at a distance. The Stoic of the two was standing to attention with his bow strung and ready for action while the Ardent leaned casually on his spear. They were there to observe Rowan to ensure that she wasn’t dangerous whilst keeping Seres safe. They also made Rowan feel very nervous, as if she wasn’t yet fully trusted. It was painful feeling and even made her a little bit angry.

“It’s just a precaution,” she mumbled to herself as she got into position. 

She kept a low guard with a light grip while holding her left hand back far enough to be out of the way but forwards enough to be useful in its own right. Then in one graceful movement she twisted the sword and cut upwards before bringing it straight back down. It was a bizarre feeling, as if she was swinging with the strength and mass of two people. In that moment, she felt a familiar touch guiding her hand amongst a sea of tears. 

Then it was over, and the sensation eased, leaving Rowan somewhat confused as it seemed like she had missed what should have been a near perfect cut. There had been very little in the way of noticeable resistance as she swung. Even Tyris looked like he wasn’t quite sure what had just happened. 

Doubting herself, she poked the dummy inquisitively. In response to her touch, it collapsed, thrice in twain.

Tyris looked at Rowan, wide-eyed as she staggered back in shock. “Did I really just do that?” she asked.

“You were amazing,” Tyris replied. “Well, the results suggest you were. It all happened too fast for me to follow. How did it feel?”

“Heavy? No, that isn’t the right word. Massive, perhaps? Yeah, that works. It was like I was swinging something as massive as a person but as light as a sword. I also felt more than twice as strong and you already saw how fast I was.”

“Are you sure that’s what you felt?” Tyris asked quizzically. 

“As sure as sure can be. Why?”

“It’s nothing.”

Rowan looked at her brother with no small degree of doubt before turning to the princess and calling out to her. “Did you see that, Seres?” she shouted.

“I did,” Seres called back. “Keep up the great work, Rowan.”

“This is just the beginning.”

The exchange caught the attention of the group of soldiers who had been sparring with the hope of impressing Seres. They didn’t do anything overt to show there frustration at being overshadowed by a diminutive stranger, but they did keep an eye on her while they continued to train.

Too exhilarated to feel their baleful gaze, Rowan turned back to look at her brother expectantly. “So, what’s next?” she asked.

“Good question. Well I don’t think that we’ll make much progress with the testing dummies; you’ve already proven that you’re more than a match for them. How about this? Stand in the ring over there and show me what you’ve got.”

“Any particular forms?” Rowan asked.

“No,” Tyris replied quickly. “I want to see you as you are now as opposed to the adolescent you that I taught. As much as I wish it were so, you are not that girl anymore and I want to know how you’ve changed.”

“Okay…” Rowan responded hesitantly. It felt uncharacteristic of Tyris and she didn’t like how it brought attention to the distance of time between them. Even though she knew that he wanted to close that gap as much as she did, it still hurt. Even so, she also knew that this was an opportunity to speak with more than just words. In the ring she had a chance to paint a picture of her experiences.

The ring was a simple design, delineated by raised earthen border painted a deep, slightly luminescent blue. It contrasted well with the light dirt floor and any potential blood from sparring accidents. Granted, that last part was largely conjecture as the ring was free from any and all blood, much to Rowan’s surprise. She was far too used to the bloody arena in the caves. The lack of blood was a larger comfort than Rowan expected as it chased away the slight anxiety as she stood into the ring.

Taking a few breaths to ready herself, Rowan adjusted her grip and let her feelings guide her. Instead of taking a standard guard, she adopted a stance somewhere between the starting position of a dance and an open guard. She felt more limber than ever, as if a monolithic burden had been vanquished. It was an exhilarating feeling, one of trust and faith. And then she remembered. She remembered every fight she had been in from the caves to Bragi’s fall to the snowball fight all those winters ago. She remembered the night her mother died. She remembered how her mother fought; how she danced. She remembered her mother. A single tear hit the ground and the song began. 

Rowan danced and fought with every last memory, guided by her emotions. In her heart she found strength. In the depths of her soul she found harmony amid the chaos of everything. She danced with a radiant desire that touched the hearts of everyone that watched as Elan Fiir whistled a song of hope that shined brighter than the sun. And with light came the darkness of hate that brought retributive condemnation to the eidetic phantoms that would bring her pain. But even in the darkest shadow the way can be lit by a sword engulfed in the flames of anger. However, treading such a path requires love to shield against the darkness and courage to face the dangers. Rowan’s heart cried out as all of her emotions permeated every fibre of her being.

She lost herself in the dance. With each movement she sensed everything and nothing. With every step she found grace beyond reason; fear and serenity acting in oxymoronic unity. She left no openings as she swept from phantom to phantom, cutting each one down  with great and terrible beauty.

When her dance came to a close, she breathing heavily. Her battle was over, she had conquered her phantoms and won their hearts. To call it a flawless performance would be disingenuous as that would suggest that there was something to compare it to. In truth it was a one of a kind performance, an immortal moment known only to those who bore it witness. Rowan knew that she would never again be able to replicate it, especially as she wasn’t even sure exactly what had happened. It was all in the moment. Even capturing the feeling would be difficult beyond imagining. One aspect she would never forget, however, was her mother’s presence. It was with her the entire time and remained even now.

Rowan wasn’t sure how much time had passed and she hadn’t noticed the exceptionally large audience that she had managed to acquire; she was focused only on her brother and Seres. She didn’t have the energy to do much more than that. She smiled at them and hit the floor.

“It’s okay Rowan, you can sleep now.”

The last thing Rowan heard before she passed out was her mother’s voice. 

*****

Rowan woke up in the overly soft bed in her quarters to an extremely unexpected visitor. Queen Elarin sat in a chair across from her, accompanied by a maid and two guards, both female.

“I see you are finally awake,” said Queen Elarin as Rowan clambered up and shyly brought the blanket around herself.

“Y-your Majesty!”

“Indeed. You gave Seres and your brother significant cause for alarm when you collapsed.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You don’t need to apologise,” said Elarin, shaking her head. “It was clear that you were just exhausted. I must say it was a truly impressive performance?”

“You saw it?” Rowan asked with considerable surprise. 

“The latter half, yes,” the queen replied. “From what I’m told, the runner that informed me of the performance was sent around ten minutes in.”

Rowan gave her a look of shock. “Ten minutes?”

“Indeed. And I was present for the last fifteen.” 

“No wonder I was so exhausted!”

“Do you think your strength has returned?” Queen Elarin asked.

“I guess? That is to say, I feel more awake, Your Majesty.”

“Excellent. With the aid of our healers and chefs, you’ll make a full recovery. For now, let’s start with some water.” With that, Queen Elarin motioned to her maid to pour Rowan a glass.

Rowan accepted the glass with a smile. “Thank you, Queen Elarin.”

Queen Elarin looked at her with a smile of her own. “It is the least we can do, Rowan. I saw the truth of your emotions in that performance. Even at a distance it was vivid beyond compare, visceral even and Seres saw far more than just emotion. In her own words, the Resonance was thick enough to be tangible and painted a song of experiences like a beautifully awful cacophony.”

“That’s…” Rowan wasn’t really sure how she was supposed to respond to that. “Where is Seres?”

“In the reading room with your brother. It was almost impossible to get her leave your side. She was never like this as a child. Not exactly at least. You really made an impression on her.”

“I just did what I could,” said Rowan, shaking her head. “She did much more for me.”

“I’m sure she would say the same about you. I for one believe that you benefitted each other pretty much equally. If anything, you both formed a gestalt of mutual aid.”

“You really think so?” Rowan asked with a pleading look in her eyes.

“You have my word as queen.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty.”

“Think nothing of it.”

“I think that’d be impossible,” Rowan sighed.

“Such a dramatic sigh,” Elarin laughed. “Unfortunately, the time has come for me to take my leave. However, before I go, I have one last thing to say.”

“Yes?”

“In three days there will be a ball to celebrate Seres’ return and honour you and your friends who made it happen as well as all those who have suffered because of the foul operation you fell victim to. I intend to show my gratitude in full and will be greatly appreciate it if you would attend as a guest of honour. Your friends have already been invited.”

“Yes, of course. It’ll be a massive honour to accept. That was probably a redundant comment considering the position. There is something I must ask though.”

“Go ahead.”

“My friend, Amran. His ankle was injured in the escape. Is he okay?” 

“He should be. I sent our best healers to see him after Seres told me about the escape. They had to remover the foot, but he has been provided with a prosthetic and a more functional one is being crafted as we speak.”

The news filled Rowan with joy and sadness as well as a little bit of guilt. On the one hand, Amran was in good hands, but he had lost a foot because of her. She gave Queen Elarin a sad little smile. “Thank you, Your Majesty,” she said, “I won’t keep you any longer.”

“Shall I send in Seres and your brother? I’m sure they’d like to speak to you.”

“Please.”

With that, Queen Elarin took her leave with the maid and guards in tow. Meanwhile Rowan readied herself for the conversation that was bound to follow with Seres and her brother.

Author’s Notes: Hello everyone. First off, I wanted to apologise. I know it’s been a couple of weeks since I released the last chapter and I explain why and assure you all that this won’t be a common occurrence. To put it simply, I had a severe mental health episode that bordered on being a crisis. For those of you that don’t know, I have BPD and it hit me like a truck while I was working on this chapter. I won’t go into details here but it was bad. Unfortunately, even when the crisis was past, I kept feeling like I couldn’t do the chapter justice which made the break much longer than I hoped which made everything so much harder. But I finally managed to bite the bullet and get it done. I hope that the finished piece is to your liking. We should be back to regular posting again. On top of that, I’m going to be working on my buffer and patreon chapters so that this doesn’t happen again.

Previous Chapter <-> Next Chapter

Chapter 18

Rowan’s heart was beating a thousand times a minute. She could hardly believe that Tyris was right there on the other side of the door. Part of her was scared. A large part. It was all so sudden. What happened to being given a chance to prepare? How had Tyris had the chance to prepare? Her thoughts were racing; a feeling she still wasn’t used to.

“Ow!” 

Something hit her on the forehead. It was sudden and instantly brought her back to the present. When she looked around to see what had happened, the culprit became immediately apparent. Seres was leaning over towards her with her arm stretched out in a prime flicking position.

“Breath, Rowan,” she said. “Come on. Deep breaths. You can do this.”

“I can do this!” Rowan replied before hyperventilating again.

“Are there any bags nearby, Avra? Something impermeable would be ideal.”

“I shall look around immediately, Your Highness.”

“And apologise to Rear Admiral Naliir for the wait.”

“Of course.”

When Avra left to fulfil Seres’ order, she turned back to Rowan and took a seat beside her. “Come on Rowan. You’ve been through trials far beyond the ken of most mortals. It isn’t like you to fall at the first emotional hurdle. Embrace those feelings and greet your brother with everything you’ve got. You aren’t going to scare him away and I’ve seen worse.”

The entire time, Seres was rubbing Rowan’s back gently while she calmed down. It took her a good five minutes to fully recover from the panic, just in time for Avra to return. Her palms were still sweaty, but she was ready.

“Thank you, Avra,” she said, “I should be okay now. Could you send my brother in please?”

“Right away, Mistress Rowan,” replied Avra with a bow.

After what seemed like an eternity, she returned with Tyris. He was really there; Rowan was seeing her brother for the first time in almost six years. Time had clearly left its mark on him. His ruddy hair was less vibrant and his face was serious and clearly scarred from battle. He also, somewhat paradoxically, felt taller. But deep down, Rowan could still see the same Tyris she had always known and he was crying. 

Meanwhile, Seres saw him for the naval veteran that he was in his extremely well maintained officer’s uniform and chiselled features. She also saw the undeniable familial Resonance between the two and it only made the strange Resonance of the Naliir family all the more apparent. It did not however, why Rowan occasionally expressed the same familial Resonance with herself. The last thing that stood out to Seres was the long, flat case in his right hand with two large locks that was made all the more notable by the Resonance that was tangible even though the container. 

Across the room, Tyris looked at his sister for the first time in an eternity. She had grown to be beautiful like their mother. More so in fact, with hair that shone like truest crimson and eyes like gentle violets hiding a thirst for blood. He saw a strength in her that he couldn’t explain despite how small and frail she appeared. Beside her sat the second princess, the very reason that he had been called to war, just like Rowan was his reason for answering. Like Rowan, Princess Seres was also extremely small and frail, little more than skin and bones, but she was notably more filled out than Rowan. Looking at them side by side, even Tyris couldn’t deny that they had a strange resemblance that wasn’t quite familial, but something close. It reminded him of Tehri, the one member of his family that was still unaccounted for. Despite his best efforts to keep a strong face, he started crying. Readying himself for what came next, he placed the case he was holding down.

“It’s good to see you, littlest Rowan,” he said, greeting her through his tears.

“Hi, Tyris,” she replied, also crying, “I’m home.”

Then, after a slight push from Seres, she got up, took two flighty steps forward before leaping into Tyris’ arms.

He clung to her tightly, not wanting to let her go but also scared that she would break. Meanwhile, Seres just let the reunion play its course. After a while, when the two Naliir siblings had had their fill of tears and heartfelt comfort, Rowan released herself from her brother’s arms and took a step back. 

“We should probably take a seat,” she said, motioning towards the soft chairs.

“Yes, let’s,” Tyris replied, before turning to Seres and bowing. “Forgive for not introducing myself, Your Highness. I hope you understand that I have not seen my sister in a very long time and feared I never would. My name is Tyris Naliir, Rear Admiral of the second Royal Strike Force Flotilla.”

“There is no need to apologise, Rear Admiral, or to be so formal,” replied Seres with a smile. “You are the brother of my hero so I can hardly ask you to address me as if I am leagues above you. Please, take a seat and have some tea.

“Thank you, Princess.”

“I cannae believe you’re actually here,” said Rowan to Tyris after he took his seat. 

“Nor I you, dear sister. We thought you were lost to us.”

“What about Tehri? Is she safe?”

“I was about to ask you the same thing,” Tyris replied with some confusion. 

Rowan immediately gave him a concerned look that bordered on fear. “Why?” she asked.

“Because I haven’t seen her since I visited for the Winter Solstice before the eclipse.”

The answer filled Rowan with terror. “B-b-but I saved her,” she stammered through heavy eyes. “The raiders had taken us captive and they were going to kill Tehri. I killed them first. With Ardent ferocity I slaughtered them like nothing else mattered. All to give Tehri the chance to escape. I saw her run away. I told her to find you or Da. She has to be alive. She has to be.”

“I’m sorry, Rowan. I haven’t seen her and as far as I’m aware, neither has father.”

“I’m sure she’s out there, Rowan,” Seres interjected. “There could be any number of reasons she didn’t find her way home. I’ll ask mother if she can send people out to help find her.”

“Thank you, Seres,” Rowan replied, shaking slightly from fear.

“Yes, thank you,” Tyris added.

“Is Da okay?” Rowan asked her brother.

“He’s managing,” Tyris answered. “The years haven’t been kind to him and the loss of mother was harsher still. He was barely coherent when he told me what happened, but I’m sure he’ll be happy to see you. I wish I could say more that, but I haven’t seen much of him since the attack.”

“I’ll do my best to see him soon.”

“Sorry that this reunion has been such a downer,” Tyris apologised, “but, I do have some good news.”

“Oh?”

“I got married last year.”

Rowan immediately brightened up at that. “Congratulations!” she exclaimed loudly. “Who’s the lucky person?”

“Me,” Tyris answered with a straight face, making Seres laugh. 

“Stop that,” Rowan complained to both her brother and her friend. 

“Sorry, but it’s true. I really am lucky beyond belief to have met her. She actually saved my life back during the crusade of the raiders. She’s a doctor you see and I got poisoned in one of the battles. It was through her healing touch that I was able to go on fighting and in time we soon grew close. I won’t bore you with the details, but she gave me back my heart when I thought it was gone for good and now she is with child. You’re going to be an aunt, Rowan.”

“Congratulations.” This time it was Seres offering the congratulatory phrase as Rowan’s jaw had hit the proverbial floor in shock.

“Her name is Talia and I’m sure you’d love her,” Tyris continued. “I hope you can meet her soon.”

“We’d be honoured,” Seres replied.

“You too, Your Highness?” Tyris asked in surprise.

“Of course. Rowan has been my friend, guardian, and sister for the past five so I’d like to be there for her in this joyous moment. If you would permit it, that is.”

“I see no reason to refuse you. Any friend of Rowan’s is welcome if she so wishes. Though, Rowan, if you do want to bring people in addition to the princess, I’d appreciate it if you let me know in advance so I can have food prepared.”

It took Seres nudging Rowan in the side to get her to answer. “Um, right. Yes. I’ll do that,” she said with an awkward smile. 

“Was she like this when she was younger as well?” Seres asked.

“All the time,” Tyris answered. “Even back then, she was like a mini Ardent, both in terms of her size and her mercurial nature. And now she actually is a mini Ardent, though not quite as small as she was back then. What’s it like, Rowan? I’m not asking you to relive your Awakening, but I’m curious to what it’s like now.”

“I don’t really know how to describe it other than everything is more intense. Kind of chaotic, like a storm. But even in all the chaos, there is a weird sense of clarity if you know where to look. Though, that is admittedly rather difficult at times. I’m stronger too. Even like this, I could probably beat you in an arm wrestle if my emotions were strong enough.”

“I’m not so sure,” Tyris said, somewhat sceptically.

“My money would be on Rowan,” Seres opined.

“It would depend on the intensity of my emotions at the time. Its like the stronger they are, the stronger I am. But they also let me do weird things like create heat or even fire when I’m angry. When I’m scared, my senses go through the roof and there are times when my reaction speed becomes obscenely high. I’m still not sure what everything does and I’m far from being able to control it, but it is definitely something. I hope that is a good enough answer because I cannae really do any better right now.”

“That’s more than enough. I was mostly just curious.”

“Well what about you?” Rowan asked. “What’s it like being a Rear Admiral?”

“At the moment it’s rather quiet. Ever since we dealt with the raiders, there hasn’t been much Strike Fleet to do other than assist the Scout and Aegis Fleets. Which is fine by me as it gives me a lot more time to spend with my wife. Even so, it is a massive responsibility, having so many ships and people under your command.”

“And I’m sure you are worthy of that responsibility, Master Tyris,” responded Seres confidently.

“Thank you, Princess. I wish I could ask more about what life has been like for the both of you, but I know it’s been nothing good and I don’t want to make you relive anything painful.”

“It wasn’t all bad,” Rowan responded. “I made some friends and super recently I met a really attractive Ferran lady called Alena and I suspect that she might have certain inclinations.”

“I don’t,” Seres interjected. 

“Don’t what?” Rowan asked with some slight confusion. 

“Share your suspicions,” answered Seres smugly before muttering something that Rowan didn’t quite catch.

“What was that?”

“Nothing.”

“Well okay then,” Rowan harrumphed. “Anyway, as I was saying, I met this really attractive lady. Though, if I’m being honest, all five of them were attractive in their own right.”

“That reminds me,” Tyris interrupted, “Do you know what happened to Kyr or Kiriin?”

Rowan’s face turned dark at the mention of her childhood friends. “Kyr was sold off to slavers right from the get go; his potential was too low. As for Kiriin, they managed to break her. They used me to get to her and now she’s theirs.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“When we arrived in the caves where the held us prisoner, they carved brands into our backs so that they could control and manipulate us if we ever broke.” To punctuate her explanation, Rowan turned around, unbelted her tunic and pulled over her shoulders to reveal the elaborate markings on her back.

“I’m so sorry,” Tyris apologised. 

“It’s okay,” replied Rowan as she put her tunic back on and belted it back up. “I’m going to destroy the people that did this to us and then find a way to free Kiriin and everyone else.”

“Well you have my support,” said Tyris warmly.

“And mine,” Seres added.

“Thanks.”

“With that said, I have something for you, Rowan. But first, I need your approval, Princess Seres, to present my sister with a weapon.”

“Why?” Seres asked. 

“Because Rowan does not have authorisation to wear or possess a weapon in the palace without a grant from a member of the royal family of the captain of the royal guard. Only the Queen can give Rowan permanent unfettered authorisation, but you can grant temporary approval as long as an Awakened Pair from the royal guard. They are waiting outside and possess the keys to this case. Do you consent to this?”

“I do,” Seres answered while Rowan squirmed about in anticipation. 

“In which case. Mistress Avra? Would you please be so kind as to summon the two gentlemen that are waiting patiently outside?”

“Right away,” Avra replied. A moment later she returned with two men wearing the black and silver uniforms of the royal guard, one accented in red and the other in blue. It was practically impossible to guess how old they were beyond significantly older than they looked.

“Okay then,” Tyris spoke up, “would you please confirm that you consent to me presenting Rowan with the weapon in this case, Your Highness?”

“I do.”

“Excellent. Gentlemen! If you’d be so kind.”

In response to Seres’ consent and Tyris’ request, the two men each pulled out a key from inside of their coats and unlocked the case. With it open, Tyris reached inside and took hold of the sword that lay there. Then, in a resonant tone, he started speaking. “As promised on the eleventh anniversary of your birth, I come bearing the tears of our ancestors, so that you may use it with their blessing. Do you, Rowan’efrii Alyris Naliir, accept your birthright? Will you accept Elan Fiir?”

“Aye! A thousand times over.”

“Then take it,” Tyris said humbly while proffering the sheathed sword.

It was exactly like Rowan remembered it, untouched by time. She took hold of Elan Fiir by the deep red leather scabbard which had been made from an extinct magma dwelling cousin of a drakiir and decoratively plated with blackened star metal. Rowan’s other hand drifted down to the hilt which bore an elegant, almost swept guard made from a metal that looked almost like bronze, only more vibrant and glistening like crystal. Her hand sat nicely between the guard and the pommel with enough room to give her versatility of grip, but not so much to be impractical. 

Now feeling comfortable with the sword, she strengthened her hold of it and drew it slightly to examine the blade. The silvery crystal like blade was made from a metal quite unlike any other she had ever seen in that it was slightly transparent. Stranger still was that the blade appeared to cause absolutely no refraction; any light that wasn’t absorbed just treated it like it wasn’t there. Then, not wanting to push her luck with the guards, she sheathed the sword. 

She would need to try the sword out in the field to get a proper feel for it, but it felt right. Unbelievably so. It was as if the burden she carried on her shoulders was gone. Or rather, it was now shared by countless people who were each giving her a small token of their strength. However, amongst all of the tiny stars, two together shone as brightly as the sun.

Next to her, Seres saw it all. In Rowan’s hands was a true magnum opus of smithing. Even so, that could only do so much to impress her. What truly amazed Seres was how the sword Resonated. She saw over a hundred tiny voices in harmony that rose to a crescendo when Rowan took hold of the sword, each one improving on the last. And at the core of it all, two brilliant voices sang. 

Elan Fiir was Soulforged. Undoubtedly so. The two voices proved it, yet they also called everything Seres knew about Soulforging into question. To forge a Soul was to put a person’s very essence into an object, leaving nothing left to pass on to the other side. Such people sacrificed everything. But that wasn’t what Seres saw now. Instead she saw two separate but incomplete essences that seemed to come together to form a gestalt, presumably allowing the rest to pass on. It should have been impossible.

Or not yet observed. I’ll need to look into it. Maybe then I’ll…

“I was thinking we could meet up again to see what you’re made of,” Tyris said, speaking to Rowan while Seres remained deep in thought. “It will give you a chance to test out Elan Fiir as well.”

“If you think you can keep up,” Rowan laughed.

“I’m not a fool. You could outpace me anyway of the week even if you are just skin and bones.”

“I’m working on that, but I can only gain so much weight in so little time.”

“I know. I’m just worrying about you. Needlessly most likely, but I’m not going to let this feeling go. It’s a reminder that you’re really back.”

“That’s probably not healthy.”

“Probably not. Anyway, I need to get going. I’d love to stay and talk more but Talia is waiting and I promised I’d bring her something exotic to eat.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Rowan smiled. 

“That you will,” Tyris replied before turning to Seres. “And it has been an honour speaking to you, princess. I hope to have the chance again in the future.”

Still deep in thought, Seres barely noticed, only just managing to nod in acknowledgement. Then Tyris bowed and took his leave. Once again, the two girls were alone. That is if you ignored the maid or the guards. It took some time for Rowan to regain Seres’ attention, but when she did, they spent the rest of the afternoon talking right up until their evening meal.

Author’s Notes: And here we have the reunion and a little Elan Fiir tease. Look forward to next chapter where we will really see what Rowan can do with her new toy.

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