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.

Previous Chapter <-> Next Chapter

Chapter 17 Part 2

Queen Elarin sat on a small, elaborately carved, wooden throne with a weary smile. Her golden eyes were dark and tired. Ignoring any sense of decorum, Seres ran into her mother’s arms and cried. Not sure of how she was supposed to act, Rowan just stood there awkwardly by Dralik’s side.

After a moment, Queen Elarin turned her attention to Dralik and Rowan, though she still held Seres in a fierce embrace, as if she never intended to let her go ever again. “Thank you for bringing my daughter home, Captain Dralik,” she said with a gratitude that knew no bounds.

“I was just doing my duty, Your Majesty.”

“Come now, Dralik. There’s no need to be so formal.”

“Of course, Your Majesty. Though I must say that your thanks are largely misplaced in me. While it is true that my crew and I were able to bring Seres back, it is this young lass here that made it possible.”

Queen Elarin looked towards Rowan with a note of surprise. “And who is this?”

Bowing awkwardly, Rowan answered, “My name is Rowan, Your Majesty. Rowan’efrii Alyris Naliir.”

“She’s kept me safe this whole time. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Rowan.”

“Truly?”

“If the information I have gathered on the voyage here is anything to go by, she has done much more than that,” Dralik answered. 

“In which case, I wish to formally extend an invitation to stay in the palace, Miss Naliir. You will be our honoured guest. In return, I only ask for an honest account of the past five years.”

“I can do that, Your Majesty,” replied Rowan with a slight blush.

“Queen Elarin is fine. Tell me, Miss Naliir, your name is familiar.  Are you perhaps related to Rear Admiral Naliir and Hlii’hæra, the Heartborne Songstress of the Crescent Isles?” 

Rowan recognised her mother’s name, but not the title associated with it. She tried to answer, only for the tears to start flowing. “Tyris is my brother and H-hæra is m-my mother. Was my mother.”

“News of her passing reached the capital. We were devastated by her loss. You have my condolences. As for your brother, I will have word of your return sent to him.”

“Thank you, Queen Elarin.”

“With that said, you must be tired. You can give me your account later. Until then, you will be treated as a guest of the crown. I’ll have someone from my serving staff to assist you during your stay. If you need anything,  feel free to ask them. As for your brother, I  shall have word sent to him with due haste.”

“Thank you.”

*****

Shortly after meeting the Queen, Rowan was being escorted to her new temporary quarters in the dusk wing of the palace by a human maid, roughly forty years of age. Her name was Avra and she was in charge of the serving staff that attended to guests in the palace, meaning she was giving Rowan her full attention. 

“I have sent for a tailor and a dressmaker so that we can have some suitable attire made for you. Those rags simply will not do. They’ll see you after you have bathed.”

“Thank you. Um, would you be able to send for a healer as well? I think I might need it.”

“Right away, Miss Rowan. I shall see about slotting that in between your bath and your appointment with the tailor.”

The maid was extremely taciturn in the way she acted and the way she talked. It was rather fitting considering her position, but Rowan wasn’t sure how to process it. She was reminded of Fein and the wardens, but in a non-threatening way. That’s isn’t to say that it was a comforting feeling, either. More accurately, she felt a weird limbo between unease and comfort. At the same time, she was scared that such feelings were driven by paranoia, whilst also knowing that such fear was paranoia in and of itself.

“Are you well, Miss Rowan?” asked Avra.

“Sorry,” Rowan replied, realising that she was staring into space, “it’s nothing.”

“Very well. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to ask. We are at your beck and call for the duration of your visit.”

“Thank you.”

“Now, your quarters in the Sunfall Apartments are just up ahead. I am sure they will be to your liking.”

When they arrived, Rowan’s jaw dropped. The rooms were lavish beyond belief, filled with sofas and divans covered in deep purple velvet which balanced nicely with the bright ambience of the room, painted by the gentle light of an evening sun. The decor spoke of the transition of day to night in a way that was striking, but not overbearing. 

“Wow!” Rowan said simply.

Avra gave her a satisfied smile. “This is merely the parlour. Or should I say lounge? That is the more colloquial term, is it not?”

“Maybe?” Rowan answered, having not really heard the term before. “I know a solar, living room, drawing room, and parlour mean, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say lounge before.”

“Strange. It is quite a common prase here in the capital if the other staff are to be believed.”

“I’m not exactly from the capital,” Rowan stated.

“Yes, of course,” Avra apologised. “Well your chambers are right though here.”

Rowan had been provided with four well sized rooms and access to a garden. As with the parlour, the rest of the Sunfall Apartments were decorated with the theme of evening in mind. Even the garden complimented the theme nicely with the vibrancy of evening roses, pansies, and dusk lilies. 

As for her rooms, she had a reading room equipped with several amenities for entertaining one’s self or a guest. The bedroom featured a bed that she swore was at least triple the size of her one back home, and it was unbelievably soft; Rowan practically sank into the mattress when she tried it. Right outside of the bedroom was an attached boudoir with a small circular platform towards one end and considerably more mirrors than Rowan felt was strictly speaking, necessary.  Last of all was the equally obnoxious, private bathroom suite which was divided into three sections; a toilet room, a dressing room, and a wet room; all of which had proper plumbing. The bath was particularly impressive, being large enough to swim in. It was also already filled and steaming. 

“I’ll have some of my maids assist you with your bathing and grooming. We have medical ointments that will be beneficial to you as you soak so I shall send for those as well. In the mean time, feel free to rest.”

Rowan nodded and sunk into one of the chairs in the reading room and almost fell asleep when the other maids arrived. Their arrival marked the start to a day of grooming. They started by cleaning Rowan to within an inch of her life. By the end of it, she swore that she would still be sparkling after an entire month. Then they trimmed, styled and conditioned her hair before using a razor to remove what little body hair she had, leaving her skin as smooth as silk. At each step they made sure she was happy proceed, and while it might have seemed a little extreme, she was actually enjoying it.

She was given a break from the intense makeover when the healer came to see her. After she gave him the rundown of what she had been through and the injuries she had sustained, the healer gave her a thorough examination. 

“I can hardly believe it,” he said at the end of his examination. 

“Believe what?” Rowan asked anxiously. 

“Other than you being notably underweight, you are surprisingly healthy. Physically speaking that is. I can detect no abnormalities in your bones or musculature past a few signs of prior fractures. There are also no clear hormonal abnormalities, though that is far from my specialty. I must say, I’m quite surprised by these results. Even for an Ardent, this is impressive.”

“Really?” replied Rowan with several notes of surprise, both at the assessment and at the healer’s own wonder. 

“Indeed. That isn’t to say there is nothing that needs to be done. You are far too light. Unhealthily so. I can help with that through a selection of medicines that interact with your metabolism to supplement your weight gain at a healthy rate. This isn’t something we can rush, but it is important.”

“Understood.”

The healer prescribed Rowan a medicinal cocktail to help with her weight and the issues surrounding it. Then she was onto the tailor and dressmaker where she was made to stand for hours while she was measured and garments were adjusted. The clothes they provided her with were simple in nature. They were, after all, somewhat limited for time and had to make sure she at least had the beginnings of a wardrobe. Furthermore, they were both aware that Rowan would be gaining weight soon, which was rather limiting to them. Even so, they were also cut from incredibly expensive fabric; Rowan could tell just from how it felt on her skin.

By the end of it, Rowan was provided with a light dinner before she collapsed into the bed.

“This is far too soft,” she muttered to herself as she drifted off to sleep.

*****

The next morning, Rowan was woken up by a knock on her bedroom door, only to find herself lying down on the hard floor with a pillow and wrapped in a blanket. She couldn’t remember how she ended up on the floor but it was surprisingly more comfortable than the ridiculously soft bed.

“Ahem.”

Avra was standing over her with a disapproving expression 

“W-w-what!” Rowan stammered. “Aren’t you supposed to wait until I say ‘come  in’ or something before you barge in?”

“I gave you a chance to respond. When you did not, I deemed it necessary to wake. you up directly.”

“Why?”

“Because Her Majesty wishes to break fast with you,” Avra answered. “As does the princess.”

“I’ll be there right away. Just let me get dressed first.”

“Of course. I’ll be waiting outside.”

Ten minutes later, Rowan was being escorted to the Royal apartments. In the interest of time and not much choice, she was wearing a long, maroon coloured tunic with a gold trim belted at the waist, forest green leggings and soft leather boots. She had also placed her hair in a loose ponytail after brushing out the kinks from a restless night. 

When they arrived, Avra announced Rowan to the Royal family. She saw Seres and Queen Elarin immediately. They weren’t alone, however. Across from Seres, on the Queen’s right hand was an incredibly beautiful woman with brown hair with suntouched ears and piercing blue eyes. She wore a soft expression, but Rowan could see the remnants of grim determination in her face. From context, Rowan could tell that it was Seres’ older sister, Elia. On the other side of Princess Elia sat a much younger boy with fire like hair that seemed to defy gravity. As with Princess Elia, it was obvious that he was Seres’ younger brother, Rikta. Unlike the rest of his family, who were keeping their tails low and out of the way, had his on full display and it was as wild as his hair. It took Rowan by surprise, but his cavalier tail made her realise that all four royals were essentially wearing pajamas.

“Please, take a seat, Miss Rowan,” said Queen Elarin, beckoning her to the seat next to Seres.

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Rowan replied, giving the Queen an awkward cross between a bow and a curtsy.

“You don’t need to be so formal in such settings, Miss Rowan. As I said yesterday,  ‘Queen Elarin’ is fine. The same goes for my children. Their names are a suitable mode of address here. If you must use honorifics, lord or lady should suffice.”

“Understood, Queen Elarin.” 

Queen Elarin turned to Seres in response. “Dearest Seres, is your friend okay? She is a lot stiffer than you described last night.”

“I’m sure she’s just nervous, mother.”

“Understandable,” sighed Queen Elarin as Rowan took her seat. “Anyway, you already know Seres, but that still leaves my other two children. This is my eldest daughter and heir, Elia. Next to her is my rascal of a son, Rikta. I swear my husband gave more than just his seed when Rikta was conceived.”

“Mother!” Seres exclaimed with a furious blush.

“It’s merely an unfortunate observation, dear.” 

Silence followed. Even Rowan could read between those lines. The late king passed away from illness not long after Prince Rikta was born.

“It is a pleasure to meet you both,” said Rowan with a slight bow of the head to Elia and Rikta, hoping to break up the silence.

“If the reports are anything to go by,” Elia responded, ” the pleasure is ours.”

“Elia speaks truly,” Queen Elarin added. “Which brings me to the primary reason I invited you here besides my daughter’s insistence. We received Captain Dralik’s report yesterday and Seres gave me her account of the events last night. All that remains is for you to give your own as best as you can.”

“I’ll try,” Rowan replied hesitantly. 

In a comforting gesture that was impossible to miss, Seres placed her hand on Rowan’s. “It’s okay; I’m here for you, Rowan.”

Grateful for Seres’ presence, Rowan took a deep breath and started her account. “It all began on the night of the eclipse five years ago…”

She told the Queen everything. From her Awakening to the torture and branding. From Anri’s death to her bargain with Lord Fein to take on all of Seres’ suffering. From her oath of vengeance to the Goddess and their escape. Everything. And she let her emotions fill her every word, lending the account a visceral weight. Rikta had barely paid attention beyond the action, but Elia was furious and Queen Elarin wore a serious expression that showed her years.

“Thank you, Miss Rowan,” said Queen Elarin graciously. “Your account lines up with everything I was told yesterday and there was no deceit in your emotions.”

“That was never in doubt!” Seres objected. 

“It’s okay, Seres,” said Rowan before turning back to the Queen. “How could you tell?”

“Being an Empath is quite useful for a ruler so I trained with my Gift from a young age.”

“That makes sense,” Rowan replied.

“Now let us eat,” Queen Elarin declared before glancing at Elia. “Some food will help with cooling down some of the more heated emotions that your account sparked.”

The gesture was subtle, but it didn’t take a genius to understand it. Whilst Elia had barely spoken the entire time, her emotions were clear as day and Rowan knew she had taken an active role in the crusade against the raiders.

Before Elia could respond, however, Seres interjected, “That would be lovely,” and right on cue, a team of servants entered with breakfast.

The meal was a delicate affair of seasonal fruits and fine meats with freshly baked bread that was surprisingly sweet. It was nothing like what she would have eaten at home but it was still indescribably delicious, with an array of flavours that were undoubtedly enhanced by years of borderline starvation. Even so, it was still missing her mother’s touch. Rowan burst into tears as she was eating. 

“I’m sorry,” she cried, “I didn’t mean to, it’s just…”

“We understand,” Queen Elarin replied.

Then in an extremely unexpected gesture, Prince Rikta handed Rowan some of his bread. “You’re supposed to share with people that are crying. That’s what big sister Seres always said.”

In response, Rowan started laughing. She was still crying amongst the laughter, but her emotions were slightly brighter thanks to Prince Rikta’s earnest offering. “Thank you,  Prince Rikta.”

The rest of breakfast passed without further incident, but Rowan’s emotions remained heightened for the duration. It wasn’t until later when she and Seres were playing and chatting in the Sunfall Apartments that she started to calm down. At one point they managed to rope some of the guards into a board game when Avra knocked on the parlour door.

“Miss Rowan, your brother is here to see you.”

Author’s Notes: I know it’s late, but part 2 of Chapter 17 is here and I hope you like it. I’m really sorry it’s late but Britain is currently experiencing a heat wave and I basically got cooked alive in my room. Pro tip: heat exhaustion is no joke. Make sure to keep cool and hydrated. At least I wasn’t dealing with the vaccine and heat exhaustion at the same time. Hopefully, I’ll be able to stay cool this next week, but be warned that the heat wave is forecast until next Friday. If you want more status updates you can join my discord. You can also talk with other readers there if you are so inclined. I am also reasonably active on the server.

Previous Chapter <-> Next Chapter

Chapter 17 Part 1

“Hoist the sails! We’re bringing her into port.”

The large captain of The Wind Rose boomed instructions at his crew as he took the helm. The change in the ship’s energy was palpable; Rowan felt it in her bones. That isn’t to say that everyone felt the same way. Many were excited or, at the very least, relieved, but a sizable few felt an anxious trepidation at the prospect of being taken to a foreign land. Seeing the response, Rowan started to realise how only a couple were actually from Llen Fær; the majority were from Særis and Ferran. Rowan’s heart went out to those that were scared, but she decided not to dwell on it. She was far too ecstatic for that. Instead she took hold of Seres and they both looked over the prow of the ship.

For the second time in her life, Rowan looked upon the capital city of Midiris. Two rivers cut through the city’s flanks and its walls extended out to sea, shielding the harbour. The entrance to the harbour was guarded by several ballistae and a great Soulforged chain, said to house the very essence of the first Aegis Admiral of Llen Fær. Rowan recalled Tyris telling her how the walls divided the harbour in to baileys, much like that of a castle. As they sailed past the Aegis Chain, Rowan saw that it was true. Before her lay a star shaped sea fort lined with ballistae and similar weapons. Behind the fort rested even more walls. With the addition of the defense fleet, attempting to take Midiris by sea would make a fool’s errand seem like the work of a genius. Even by land, the city would not fall without a serious fight with wall after wall lying between the city limits and the palace at the heart of the city.

Instead of sailing towards either of the commercial ports on the north and south of the city, they went straight for the docks of the court and royal navy. It was a sign of Dralik’s importance and how seriously he was taking the voyage. As they approached, one of his men sounded a horn which was greeted by a triumphant fanfare from the navy headquarters that spread throughout the city like wildfire. The sheer volume shook the ship to the core and sent the waves running. They were welcoming their princess home.

“Cast the lines and drop the anchor,” Dralik roared, “We’re bringing the princess home.”

In response, every single man and woman in his command cheered in glorious exultation. When they started to quiet down, Seres whispered to Rowan, “I really wasn’t expecting this.” She was blushing awkwardly at the welcome.

“What about the captain gave you the impression that he would be anything but subtle when we arrived?” Rowan asked her pointedly.

“Point.”

“Given graciously,” added Rowan with a mock smile. 

“I’m going to look awful in front of all my subjects,” Seres sighed. “I don’t have a dress or any make-up and there’s no time to get any.”

Rowan gave her a massive smile in response. “You dinnae need to worry about it. This subject has already seen you looking much worse.” After a second or two, she heard the sound of stifled giggling from behind Seres’ hand, which she was using in a futile attempt at hiding her own growing smile. 

“I’m still a princess. I have an image that I need to maintain.”

“Going by the sound of that welcome, I don’t think your image is going to be tarnished by a few people seeing you in peasant garb, especially when you are accompanied by a full escort.”

“You think?”

“I’m sure of it. Now let’s go see the captain. I want to know what’s going to happen to everyone now.”

The two of them walked over to Captain Dralik as he was overseeing the readying of the gangplank. He nodded to them. “Your Highness. Miss Rowan. I bid you both a joyous return home. What can I do for you?”

“Well,” Rowan started, “we were wondering what was in store for us now. Seres is obviously going home, but what about the rest of us?”

“We would have asked you sooner but we were both somewhat nervous,” Seres added. “And I think the others find you rather intimidating.”

“Hah!” he laughed. “I’m as soft as a mandra.”

“And probably just as dangerous,” Rowan interjected.

“She’s good,” Dralik boomed at Seres. “To answer your questions, Miss Rowan, I’ll make sure everyone is given a place to stay; somewhere they can rest and clean up. Clothes as well. They’ll be treated well. I’m sure Her Majesty will grant them passage home if they so desire. As for you, I will be escorting you to the palace alongside Her Highness.”

Neither Rowan or Seres were expecting that. In unison, they asked, “Why?”

“Because Her Majesty will want to see her daughter’s protector. You have done much to keep Her Highness safe these past years and that is something that should be honoured.”

“I didn’t do it alone,” Rowan responded.

“You may have escaped with the help of the others, lass, but last time I checked, none of them took on the extra burden of Her Highness’ torture in addition to their own. If anyone is deserving of this honour, it is you. It has already been cleared with the palace. And fear not, the invitation will almost definitely be extended to Master Amran, Miss Maro, Lord Ædarik as well as those in his company when I make my report.”

“Thank you. Though I must say I’m still surprised. You’re placing a lot of trust in us, especially me. Why?”

“You can’t just ask that, Rowan.”

“Hah! It’s okay, Your Highness. The reason I trust you, Miss Rowan, is because I’ve spent the entire voyage along with my crew making sure that you are worthy of it. The same goes for everyone else. My Empaths found you to be genuine and nothing you said while the shadows were listening suggested that you were a threat. Not to us at least.”

“Was my word not enough?” Seres objected.

“Begging your forgiveness, Princess, but no. After everything that could have happened to you, it was entirely possible that you were an agent of some kind. I’m sure you did the same for me before we even started this voyage.”

“We did,” Seres admitted.

“I’d be worried if you hadn’t. Now let us go to the palace. Escort on me. Keilan! Guide the lord and ladies to the Særan embassy. Tenra! Escort the other passengers to the old officer barracks and send a runner out for a healer and a surgeon.”

Like a well oiled machine, the crew of The Wind Rose got to work, following the captain’s orders. Dralik, himself, escorted Rowan and Seres down the gangplank before taking them to the palace in the company of ten men and women from the crew dressed in navy parade uniforms. The imposing presence of the captain kept anyone from getting in their way as they marched onwards. Instead, people gawked respectfully from the sidelines.

At first, the procession walked through the utilitarian naval district with its whitewashed and depressingly square buildings. Tyris had always joked that everyone in the navy with an eye for aesthetics always designed ships instead of buildings.

After a mile of walking, they reached the giant gatehouse that seperated the naval district from palace district. The guards on duty were already standing to attention well before they arrived. As they approached, the guards saluted and beckoned them through. 

The palace district wasn’t actually named for the royal palace at its heart, which was in a bailey of its own, but rather the highly decorated homes of the Midiran nobility and royal court. Rowan’s jaw dropped at the sight. Every single mansion was a palace in its own right it seemed, with architecture to match. Not only that, but the walls were also works of art beyond compare. Each mansion was a canvas that told a story for the ages in vibrant colour and masterful execution.

Before long, they were finally at the gate leading into the final bailey and the palace which was no less impressive than the ones outside. However, unlike the lesser palaces, the royal palace took a much simpler approach to allow its beauty to shine. Instead of being painted like an elaborate mural, the palace was painted in a sunburst style, darker towards the bottom and becoming brighter and brighter as its towering spires touched the heavens.

“Welcome home, Princess,” Dralik boomed.

“I can hardly believe it,” Seres replied. “Well, umm, I guess now is the time to extend that welcome to you as well, Rowan.”

“It’s amazing. This is my first time seeing it so close.”

“I’m glad it doesn’t disappoint.”

“You can gawk later, lass. Queen Elarin awaits.”

With that, they were once again on the move into the palace proper. The interior glistened with marble and gold and the walls were lined with tapestries and murals that put the palaces outside to shame. The flag of Llen Fær with the flame sitting on a silver chain hung above the large, heavy doors to what Rowan assumed was the great hall.

Instead of being taken to the great hall like Rowan expected, they went down a corridor to the left of the large doors towards a much smaller audience chamber. Inside they were greeted by a Ferran woman with burnt orange hair touched with silver and a crown.

The sight of her mother brought tears to Seres’ eyes.

“Welcome home, my beloved Seres.”

Author’s Notes: I apologise for this being a short chapter, but I didn’t want to push myself after the vaccine as it really took a lot out of me. Was anyone else absolutely wiped after they had theirs? To top it all off, both my phone and my laptop battery is dying on Friday, so I’ve basically spent a fair chunk of time since I recovered trying to fix the laptop and getting an upgrade for my phone. The latter has been especially difficult due to a weird technical issue where my contract was being treated as PAYG by the system. Thankfully, it’s all sorted now and I should have a brand new phone when I wake up. Anyway, thank you for your patience in waiting for this chapter. I hope you enjoyed it and are looking forward to the next one.

Previous Chapter <-> Next Chapter

Chapter 16

On the sixth morning, Rowan sat against the aft railing and looked up to the sun over the port side of the ship. She still couldn’t quite believe it wasn’t all some cruel dream or a new form of torture that the Silent Sisters had devised. Even so, she could not deny how real the warm light felt or how it filled her with hope. There was too much detail for it to be a fabrication, too many things that she hadn’t known before. She took solace in that thought.

“I’m gonna have so much that I need to do when we land,” she mumbled to herself. No matter how she looked at it, she was spoiled for choice. It was almost overwhelming. Tehri, Tyris and her father were all waiting for her. What would they say when they saw here? Were they safe? Well? Rowan both feared and craved the answers as well as what was bound to happen after.

Not wanting to dwell on it any longer, she got up to see if Seres was awake, only to be greeted by Ashlin and Alena.

“Good morning, Rowan,” said Ashlin with a friendly smile.

“Good morning?” Rowan responded, somewhat confused. She wasn’t expecting them to just approach her after what she had said yesterday.

“Don’t be like that. We just wanted to talk to you and maybe offer an invitation.”

Rowan responded again with the same note of confusion. “You want to do what?”

“Talk, silly,” laughed Ashlin. “Is it really so surprising?”

“Yes? I did just say how I was going to kill your father when we spoke yesterday.”

“And you have every reason to. But that is between you and him. My business is not my father’s, nor is his, mine.”

Rowan was not expecting that answer and wasn’t sure how she was supposed to respond.

“I think you might have spooked her,” Alena opined.

 “I’m fine. Lady Ashlin just caught me a little off guard.”

Ashlin smiled warmly at her. “Just Ashlin is fine. I wouldn’t feel right holding my title over you after everything you’ve been through.”

Another unexpected response. “Thanks,” Rowan smiled back awkwardly. “Was there anything in particular that you wanted to talk about?” she asked.

“Well,” Alena answered, “did you know that the ship has a cabin dedicated to washing? They call it a rain room.”

“I think Seres mentioned something like that,” Rowan responded, recalling the tour she has been given the day before.

“Well we were about to make use of it and were wondering if you wanted to join us,” Alena explained before adding, “It beats a washcloth any day.”

Not sure how else to respond, Rowan asked, “Why?”

“Because you deserve something nice for a change,” Ashlin answered.

“The captain has made sure that everyone from the caves has had a chance to use the rain room at least once if they so desire,” Alena added.

“We invited Seres as well if that makes you feel better. She accepted right away.”

“I guess I can’t exactly refuse in that case,” Rowan sighed.

“Of course you can. Its an offer, not a request or a demand. If you want, you could go at a different time without us or not at all.”

“Well in that case, I want to accept.”

“Excellent!” Ashlin exclaimed loudly. “I would offer you some clothes as well, but I don’t think I have anything that would fit you.”

“Me neither.”

Looking at the two girls before her, Rowan didn’t doubt them. Ashlin was at least half a foot taller than she was and had a completely different, even if still slender, build. Alena on the other hand was far too short, perhaps even shorter than Seres. She also had notably fuller hips than Rowan.

“I think I can manage with what I’ve got for now,” responded Rowan with an awkward smile. “Should we be going now or?”

Instead of answering with words, they stepped forwards and linked arms with Rowan before taking her below decks to the rain room. They found Seres waiting in the changing room, already naked except for the towel that she had wrapped around her. Not wanting to waste any time, Ashlin and Alena promptly started stripping Rowan down before helping each other out of their notably more fiddly dresses. 

Alena went pale at the sight of Rowan’s scarred body. At first it was just the scars around her arms: superficial cuts for most part, as well as a pair of faded burns on her wrists, and the subtle code on her forearms. Next was her abdomen and the telltale signs of where the raider had stabbed her five years prior. Her legs were much the same as arms, except for the more regular cuts on her hip that she had carved to anchor herself to the present. What truly shocked Alena, and Ashlin for that matter, was the terrible brand on her back, interlaced with the pale scars from countless lashings.

“What happened down there?” asked Alena.

“What do you mean?” Rowan asked back, not quite sure what Alena was referring to.

“The scars. Your back!”

“Oh. That. Well.”

“It was a ritual to ensure our will would become theirs if they ever broke us,” Seres answered. “There are also elements to make us more receptive to torture but also less likely to die.”

“That’s awful!”

“It looks almost like someone chained the Eyes of the Goddess,” muttered Ashlin quietly. 

“Can you please stop staring?” pleaded Rowan.

“Sorry, it’s just…” Instead of finishing her sentence, Alena hugged Rowan gently. Rowan felt Alena’s soft body press against her bony figure. In a moment quite unlike, yet remarkably similar to the time she and Kiriin shared their first kiss, Rowan felt her Gift invigorate. Then everyone started blushing for a reason only Seres could fathom.

“This is all very touching,” Seres interrupted before things started to get a bit awkward, “but don’t you think we should continue this inside? It’s a bit too chilly to be standing around naked when a nice warm shower awaits.”

Rowan jumped away from Alena with an awkward laugh and a face as red as her hair. Meanwhile Ashlin responded to Seres while fanning her face. “Yes, let’s,” she said.

*****

The rain room wasn’t quite what Rowan expected, even from Seres referring to it as a shower. It was a square cabin with a wall lined with knobs and crystals. Apart from that, it was rather unassuming. Then Ashlin started to move about the crystals and turn the knobs. In seconds it literally started raining. Rowan couldn’t believe it. There was actually rain indoors on a perfectly clear day. She was no stranger to plumbing, but this was a marvel beyond compared. Everyone else, however, was acting like it was completely mundane.

Seres laughed as Rowan opened and closed her mouth in amazement while Ashlin turned to Alena. “You know, I think that face just made my day,” she announced brightly.

“I’m sure it did,” Alena teased. “But do you know what will make my day?”

“What?”

As her answer, Alena turned one of the knobs and the gentle shower became a torrential downpour, soaking everyone to the bone. The three unsuspecting girls screamed in response before letting loose silvery peals of laughter, much to the concern of the seaman who had been assigned to watch over Seres from the shadows.

After only a couple of minutes, they set the downpour back to its original intensity and started lathering each other up in soap. All the while, Ashlin and Alena engaged Rowan and Seres in casual conversation, being careful not to overwhelm either of them. As such, they avoided going into much detail on the state of Llen Fær, not least because neither of them were experts on Midiran politics.

After the shower, Ashlin and Alena kept their promise and brushed Rowan and Seres’ hair. All in all, it was the best experience she had had in years and it gave her the strength to face what was coming next.

*****

Later that afternoon, Rowan went looking for Amran. She had to make sure that he was okay, but she had been putting it off after learning about his condition from Seres. She was scared to see the truth of it all. Unlike everyone else, he was being kept in a cabin as opposed to a curtained off section of the hold. After the ship’s medic gave her clearance, she stepped inside. 

The cabin was barren for most part, housing only a bed and some medical supplies. Amran was lying down in the bed which, after years of seeing his default position being a cross-legged lotus for meditation, just seemed weird. His left leg was suspended in air and wrapped in a cloth covering interlaced with crystals. He also looked extremely fed up, which is to say he had a slightly disgruntled expression accented by a poignant frown.

“Hello?” said Rowan, announcing herself as she walked in.

Amran responded with a muted dryness. “I see you’re finally awake. Nice of you to stop by.”

“I actually woke up yesterday.”

“Congratulations.”

“You dinnae need to sound quite so bitter.”

“My apologies, but you would not believe how vexing it is to be unable to move for so long.”

“Believe me, I can. Not to mention, I’ve seen you stay completely still for hours at a time, only stopping because the wardens made you.” 

“That was always a choice and never without purpose. This is just waiting around with a crippled ankle being kept in status with the vain hope that there is something salvageable. I am no fool, Rowan. I know my foot is lost and I am content with that sacrifice. What I am not content with is waiting for it to happen.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard you be quite so expressive for such a long and continuous stream of words,” Rowan remarked.

“Consider yourself lucky.”

“Wow. Deadpan snark is one thing, but I didn’t know you could bite as well.”

“A certain Ardent must be rubbing off on me. That’s a droll idea, a Stoic with the tongue of an Ardent.”

Rowan rolled her eye at that before going into an idea she had just had. “Well if you are so bored, perhaps a certain Ardent can disrupt the monotony of your day with some games. I’m sure the medic will approve of it.”

“That isn’t actually a terrible idea. Maybe with you around we can return to a proper Ardent/Stoic equilibrium and I can stop being so expressive.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s not a thing.”

“Unfortunately.”

*****

Following her reunion with Amran, she kept true to her promise of breaking up his day with some simple games. They were nothing major and could all be played on pen and paper. She also spent much of her time with Seres, who was becoming increasingly more anxious about finally returning home, and a couple more of the former prisoners, namely Maro.

In a turn of events that Rowan hadn’t expected, she also started spending a fair bit of time talking with Ædarik, Ashlin, and Alena, along with Davra and Deilin to a lesser extent. At first, she wasn’t sure what to think about it, but she certainly wasn’t complaining. The fact that they were inclusive of Seres certainly helped. She also couldn’t deny that attraction played a large part. After all, Ashlin and Alena were both extremely attractive and Ædarik was no slouch either. There was also Davra who was also very beautiful, though in a mature and sultry fashion. Deilin also had her own charm and a dark, silky voice that would make Rowan swoon if she sounded more confident, even if she was a bit too tall for Rowan’s tastes.

Last of all, with exception of tending to necessities, Rowan spent the rest of the trip regaining her strength as well as climbing and swinging from the rigging, much to the amusement of the crew. On the tenth day, Rowan climbed to the the crow’s nest in time to for the lookout to point out the city of Midiris in the distance. It was only a tiny speck on the horizon, but they were almost “home”. 

With glorious exultation, she shouted out to the deck below. “Port on the horizon!” Then taking hold of a rope, she leapt down with a giant smile on her face.

Author’s Notes: Editing this chapter was an interesting experience. I had a doctor’s appointment this morning and then I had to do the editing on my phone in a café. I’ve also decided to formally shift the Monday release to Tuesday. It will make things significantly less stressful for me and I’ve been told Tuesday is a slow day in general. Lastly, I’m getting my first COVID jab tomorrow so there is no promises that I’ll have a chapter ready on Friday. I’ll do my best, but it depends on how I handle it.

Previous Chapter <-> Next Chapter

Chapter 15 Part 2

On the fifth day of travel, they entered the Straights of Fire and Rowan woke up. She was finally lucid. Her body ached all over and she could barely remember a thing following their escape. She was not, however, hungry. Seres had made sure to wake her up occasionally so that she could eat. It was a strange feeling, being properly satiated for the first time in years. It would still take time to reverse the damage that had been done to her weight, but it was a start.

She rolled off of the cot in the curtained off quarters they had been provided with. Before she could find her feet, the floor rolled beneath her and she fell like a crashing wave. As Rowan struggled to her feet, unable to find her balance, a Ferran girl peaked inside.

“Seres, is that you?” asked Rowan.

“Ah, no…” the girl responded timidly.

Now seeing a tawny haired girl that she didn’t recognise, Rowan immediately guarded herself. “Who are you then?”

“Alena. I’m with Arik. Please don’t hurt me. ” The girl was terrified from the sudden show of aggression.

“Arik?” muttered Rowan quietly to herself in a somewhat confused tone. “Oh! The lord who thought himself a hero.” Feeling slightly appeased by that realisation, Rowan lowered her guard, but she didn’t drop it completely.

“Should I leave? I just heard a loud noise as I was passing by and wanted to make sure you were okay but I can go if you want me to.” Alena was speaking very quickly as she did her best to not seem threatening.

The response came with a predatory note that sent a shiver down Alena’s tail. “You don’t need to do that. Not yet at least.” 

“Are you sure?” Alena replied hesitantly.

“I just need to make sure you aren’t with them first.”

“Who?”

“The people who enslaved us. If you were, I’d have to kill you.”

Alena went pale. Half because of the threat and half because of the implication. “By the Goddess, no!” she exclaimed. “I couldn’t. Even thinking of what must have happened to you all down there makes me sick and angry and riddled with despair.”

Rowan took a sigh of relief; Alena sounded genuine. “Then I’m sorry for scaring you. Cannae be too careful. Not yet at least. Is there a bucket nearby?”

Not expecting the last sentence, Alena fumbled around in an attempt to fulfil the request. When she eventually found a bucket, Rowan promptly threw up inside it.

“Wow. It feels like forever since I’ve had enough in my stomach to throw up. Thanks for the bucket.”

“No problem,” responded Alena, slightly unnerved by Rowan’s sudden change in mood. “Are you okay?”

“Just a little vertigo,” Rowan smiled, “The ground feels like an Alyren raindrop.”

“That’s probably because we’re on a ship to Midiris.”

“Oh right. I think I remember Seres saying something about that. Or was it Amran? How long has it been?”

“Five days. Should I find Seres? We haven’t spoken but I know what she looks like. You’re Rowan, correct?”

“I am and you don’t need to do that. I should probably be up and moving.” 

“In which case, I have something that might help with the nausea while you get used to the swaying of the ship.”

“You do?”

In response, Alena pulled back her sleeves to reveal a pair of bands on her wrists. “These help a lot. I’ve got some spare so let me just go get them.”

Alena shuffled out of the ‘room’ with her ears perked up and her tail swishing behind her. Rowan’s heart fluttered at the sight. “Dammit Rowan!” she chastised herself, “This is not the time to be getting the hots for a complete stranger.”

Alena returned after only five minutes and presented Rowan with a pair of bands, each with a glass bead on the inside. “The bead goes here,” Alena explained, pointing at her own wrist. “The pressure helps for some reason.”

“Thank you,” responded Rowan quietly. She was blushing softly as she put the bands on. Kindness really was attractive and Alena had a cute smile. In an attempt to hide her blush, Rowan slapped her cheeks, making Alena jump. “Right! Time to get moving.”

It took a while for Rowan to find her balance. This was, after all, her first time being out at sea while fully conscious. Alena kept an eye on her to make sure that she didn’t fall. After twenty or so minutes of walking around the hold Rowan was doing rather well. Then something clattered behind her. She turned to see what happened when someone barrelled into her. Rowan looked down to see Seres snivelling into her shirt. 

“Um, hello, Seres.”

“You’re awake!” Seres cried, “Like really awake.”

“I really am,” Rowan laughed.

“The medic said you just needed rest, but I was scared you pushed yourself too hard.”

“I’m just going to excuse myself,” Alena interrupted awkwardly.

“Sorry, Alena,” Rowan apologised, “Seres is always like this when I’ve been gone for a while.”

“I am not!” Seres protested.

“Still, I’ve been away from my friends for too long. I was only going to get a book when you fell and then I got somewhat distracted making sure you were okay.”

“Okay then,” Rowan responded. “Tell Arik I need to speak to him later.”

“Will do.” 

Alena retreated back to her friends, hopping over some apples that Seres had dropped. “She’s adorable, isn’t she?” Rowan asked Seres.

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“You’re hopeless,” laughed Rowan.

“Well excuse me,” Seres huffed.

“I’m glad you’re safe. I think you’ve started gaining weight.”

“Rude!”

The two girls laughed at that.

“Is Amran okay?” Rowan asked after a moment, remembering the injuries he has sustained in the escape.

“Not good. His ankle was completely crushed and he isn’t healing as fast as you. The medic said that he might lose the foot.”

Rowan immediately felt guilty. If she hadn’t gone after Lord Fein, Amran wouldn’t have been injured. It started to weigh in on her and her surroundings.

She was snapped out of it when Seres started squirming. “Sorry,” she apologised

“Don’t be so hard on yourself, Rowan,” Seres replied when the pressure eased up. “Amran doesn’t blame you and neither should you. Now let’s get you something to eat and then I’ll show you around the ship. The captain is a retired vice-admiral from the Midiran Navy. I think you’ll like him.”

“We’ll see.”

After that, the girls had a lunch of apples, cheese, ham, bread, and hot butter. It took a long time for Rowan to finish; she had to eat slowly so that she didn’t strain her stomach. It was also delicious. In comparison to years of trite food they had been given in the caves, the simple lunch that they ate now was gourmet cuisine. Rowan wanted to wolf it down, but she also wanted to savour it for an eternity. The fear of throwing up again convinced her to show restraint. When she was finally finished and the meal had been given the chance to settle, Seres gave her a tour of the ship. By the end of it, she was treated to her first look at the sun as a truly free woman. It was breathtaking.

Her gawking was soon interrupted by a towering man with ruddy hair and an elaborately braided beard. “You must be Rowan,” he boomed. “Captain Dralik at your service.”

“Um, hello,” she replied at what should have been a normal volume, yet compared to Dralik, it was a whisper.

“You can do better than that, lass. Her Highness here tells me that you were a hero down in those caves.”

Rowan squirmed. “I wasn’t that much of a hero.”

“Tell that to the girl who was saved from five years of unimaginable torment. You have my gratitude.”

Rowan was surprised at how much Seres had told him. “Um, thank you. I mean, you’re welcome. No, thank you still works.”

Dralik laughed as Rowan stumbled over her words. “You’re an interesting one, lass, the complete opposite of my daughter.”

“You have a daughter?” Seres interjected.

“Aye. My replacement back home “

“In the navy?”

“That’s right. She’s the second youngest vice-admiral currently in service. I’m so proud.” The rambunctious captain beamed as he sung his daughter’s praises.

“Um, Captain Dralik?” Rowan interrupted, having realised a perfect opportunity.

“Yes?”

“When did you retire?”

“Did Her Highness not mention it?”

“I forgot.”

“Well I retired four years ago. Right after the final blow to the raiders that plagued Llen Fær.”

“Then do you know my brother, Tyris Naliir? He would have been a junior captain back then.”

“Naliir? Yes, I believe do. He was one of the first volunteers in the crusade against the raiders. I was in a few joint operations with his squadron.”

“Is he alive?”

“He was last time I checked. He might even be a rear admiral now.”

“Thank the Goddess.”

“You’ll be able to thank Her double in another five or so days when we arrive in Midiris.”

“I will, thank you.” Rowan beamed at him, aided by the light of hope.

Dralik nodded and took his leave. They were going home.

*****

Later that evening, Rowan went looking for Ædarik. She found him talking with his friends below deck. Not want to disturb them, she waited for a natural break in conversation when the one with golden hair and a bodacious figure noticed her. “Well don’t just stand there,” she beckoned with a voice like velvet, drawing everyone’s attention to Rowan.

“Rowan, sorry,” said Ædarik, “I was going to come find you earlier, but…”

“It’s fine,” she responded. “I’m not interrupting anything am I?”

“Nothing major,” the girl with the voice like velvet replied. “We were just telling Ashlin here about life in Særis. The city that is. I’m Davra by the way.”

“Rowan, but you already knew that, didn’t you?”

“Arik did sort of announce it for all to hear,” Alena laughed.

“Sorry about that,” Ædarik apologised. “Seeing as they’re here, I may as well introduce everyone. You’ve already met Alena and Davra just introduced herself. The person she pointed at with the magenta hair is Lady Ashlin Takiir. Next to her is Lady Deilin.”

Rowan greeted each one and they responded in kind. “How much do they know?” she asked.

“As much as I,” Ædarik admitted. “I tried to do what you requested without them knowing, but I couldn’t just disappear.”

“He was successful for the most part,” Ashlin opined quietly. “We thought you were just refugees, but then we heard the captain talking to the princess.”

“You know who she is?” Rowan asked, readying her mental guard.

“Only after the conversation she had with Captain Dralik,” Alena clarified, “He isn’t exactly quiet. Or subtle for that matter.”

Rowan breathed easy at that. “I think that’s an understatement,” she laughed. “Anyway, I wanted to thank you for doing what I asked and then some, Arik, even if it didn’t go quite how I expected.”

“I made a promise and I’m not one to forswear his oaths.”

Rowan smiled. “Good to know. Well, I think I’ve said what I need to so I’m going to take my leave.”

Before she could walk away, Ashlin, who had been fidgeting the entire time, spoke up. “Um, Rowan. Before you go, I wanted to apologise.”

“Why?” Rowan responded, somewhat confused.

“Because my father had something to do with those caves and all of you being kept prisoner,” Ashlin answered with her head bowed in shame.

“Did you know?”

“No, I swear I didn’t.”

“Then you have nothing to apologise for, assuming you don’t plan on aiding him in the future or getting in my way.”

“No, of course not. I wouldn’t dream of it.”

Rowan gave Ashlin and the others a serious look. “Good. Now you seem like a nice girl, so I’m gonna give you some forewarning.”

“Okay?” Ashlin replied hesitantly.

“Your father will die for what he has done. By my own hand if I can help it.”

Ashlin went pale at the declaration. So did everyone else. “I’m sorry?”

“I made an oath on the Goddess’ true name that I would destroy the operation that enslaved us and that I would see every lord involved with it dead,” Rowan explained. “They took everything from us, hoping we would break so that they could forge us into a weaponised force of Ardents and Stoics. I don’t know why, but no reason in all the realms of damnation could justify what they did.”

Everyone was speechless as Rowan stopped speaking. What could they say to that?

“I’m sorry we couldn’t have met under different circumstances,” Rowan sighed, “You all seem like nice people. The kind that I wouldn’t mind being friends with, but I kinda ruined any chances of that, didn’t I?” Before anyone could respond, she fled, leaving everyone in a state of bewilderment. Ashlin was especially shell-shocked.

“She was not what I expected,” Deilin stated after a moment of awkward silence. 

“You can say that again,” Davra agreed.

“Don’t hold it against her,” Ædarik sighed, “She’s been through a lot.”

“We won’t,” Alena said quietly.

The others nodded and Ashlin looked up. “I’m going to make her eat her final words,” she declared. “I will do my best to be friends with her. Maybe then I can lessen the shame that I feel.”

“You shouldn’t try to be friends with someone because you feel obligated to, “ Davra chided.

“Then I’ll do it because I want to. Who’s with me?”

“I’m in,” Ædarik laughed.

After a moment of Ashlin looking around, Alena timidly raised her hand. “Me too,” she added.

“I’m not sure,” Deilin admitted after some consideration. “She might be a bit too intense for me. I won’t turn my nose or anything at her, but she scares me.”

“I also won’t be going out of my way to be friends with her, but if it happens naturally, I’ll be fine with it,” Davra responded. “Though I am somewhat curious as to what she’ll be like when she’s all cleaned up and in some nice clothing.

Author’s Note: Hello everyone. I was a very clever girl and accidentally deleted my working draft of this release which is why it is so late. Recovering it was a nightmare and I nearly had a panic attack thinking that I would need to rewrite it. Thankfully I didn’t need to. Hope you enjoy it, considering how much trouble it caused me.

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