Chapter 22 (Safer for Work Version)

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh?”

“Well not exactly.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I wish I could,” responded Seres. 

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

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

*Clink*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“One last question.”

“Go on?”

“Was that list in order or?”

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

“Sorry.”

“Why are you apologising, silly?”

“I don’t know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why would that be?” Rowan asked.

“Because of how valuable we are politically.”

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

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

“Sounds stupid to me,” Rowan snorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s.”

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is?” Rowan asked.

“The platforms.”

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

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

“Lead the way.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I do, but…”

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

“Sorry,” replied a glum Rowan.

“Just have fun. Consider it an order.”

“A royal one?”

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

“Is that how it works?” Rowan laughed.

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

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

“Rowan!”

“I’m going.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Nice to see you too.”

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

“I meant to visit you sooner, but…”

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

“You sound like you’re complaining.”

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

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

“I see the tides have turned.”

“Stop that,” Rowan laughed. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you did.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t think…”

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

“You are?”

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

“How are you taking this so well?”

“Because it is in my nature.”

“This goes beyond nature.”

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

“It’s still impressive.”

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

“So what’s next for you?”

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

“That sounds like it would suit you.”

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

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

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

“Aye.”

“Then I must disagree with you.”

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t, did I?”

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

“Thanks.”

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

“You what?”

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

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

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

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

“Lady Naliir?” he said again.

“Hmmm?” Rowan replied, barely noticing.

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

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

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

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

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

“You can?”

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

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

“Guard duty? King’s delegation?”

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

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

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

“Makes sense,” Rowan conceded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well I saw her first.”

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

“I’m not sure about that…”

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

“If you say so,” Alena sighed.

“I do say so.”

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

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

“I won’t.”

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

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

“Are you okay?” Rowan asked. 

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

“Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your number one choice?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

Alena’s answer was simple and clear.

“Yes.”

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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.

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