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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Chapter 20

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now hurry and eat,” Tyris chided. 

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

“Doctor’s orders,” Tyris replied.

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

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

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

“Sorry.”

“You’re forgiven.”

“Thanks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s not funny,” Rowan objected.

“Oh, but it is, dear sister.”

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

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

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

“Excuse me?”

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

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

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

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

“As do I,” Tyris added,

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

“About that.”

“Yes?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?”

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

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

“When you say it like that.”

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

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

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

“Nor I,” said Seres.

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

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

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

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

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

“A what now?” Rowan replied.

“A presence,” answered Seres simply.

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

“Okay…”

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

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

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

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

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

Rowan nodded in response.

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

“And the dancing?” Rowan asked.

“In part.”

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

“I didn’t say that.”

“You may as well have.”

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

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

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

“Go on,” Seres prompted.

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

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

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

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

“Sorry,” said Rowan with a downcast look.

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

“It will take more research,” Tyris mused.

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

“It’s the only way to get answers.”

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

“Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it, Rowan?” Tyris asked

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

“Oh?”

“Rina!”

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

“Who’s Rina?” Seres asked.

“My sister!”

“I thought your sister was called Tehri?”

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

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

“Yeah!”

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

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

“Because I’ve spoken to her.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A what now?”

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

“Makes sense.”

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

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

“I didn’t mean it like that, silly.”

“Well that’s new,” Tyris remarked.

“Shut up, Tyris!”

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

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

“It was the least I could do.”

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

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

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

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

“Elan Fiir,” Seres answered.

“Oh yeah. What about it?”

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

“Like with the sword cut against that dummy?”

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

“Why is that?”

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

“Sharp enough to cut metal?”

“Depends on the metal.”

“Steel?” suggested Rowan with an optimistic smile.

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

Rowan looked down with disappointment at Tyris’ admissions.

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

“Oh?”

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

“As if there was nothing there.”

“Exactly.”

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

“You can say that again,” Rowan laughed.

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

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

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

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

“That’s useful.”

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

“Ignited?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think I’d like that.”

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t remind me,” sighed Rowan.

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

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

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

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

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

“At least we actually have some variety now.”

“True.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Chapter <-> Next Chapter


Chapter 19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As sure as sure can be. Why?”

“It’s nothing.”

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

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

“This is just the beginning.”

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

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

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

“Any particular forms?” Rowan asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s okay Rowan, you can sleep now.”

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

*****

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

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

“Y-your Majesty!”

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

“I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

“No wonder I was so exhausted!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have my word as queen.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty.”

“Think nothing of it.”

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

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

“Yes?”

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

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

“Go ahead.”

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

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

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

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

“Please.”

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

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

Previous Chapter <-> Next Chapter

Chapter 18

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

“Ow!” 

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

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

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

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

“I shall look around immediately, Your Highness.”

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you, Princess.”

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

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

“What about Tehri? Is she safe?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, thank you,” Tyris added.

“Is Da okay?” Rowan asked her brother.

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

“I’ll do my best to see him soon.”

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

“Oh?”

“I got married last year.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’d be honoured,” Seres replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t,” Seres interjected. 

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

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

“What was that?”

“Nothing.”

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

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

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

“I’m not sure I understand.”

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

“I’m so sorry,” Tyris apologised. 

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

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

“And mine,” Seres added.

“Thanks.”

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

“Why?” Seres asked. 

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

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

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

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

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

“I do.”

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

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

“Aye! A thousand times over.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s probably not healthy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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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Chapter 15 Part 1

The sun was low in the sky when The Wind Rose raised its anchor. Everyone was on board and they had been given as much room as Dralik could spare. Admittedly, that wasn’t much as his hold was filled with goods and food for the voyage.

The crew was remarkably quiet as they set sail. Ædarik hadn’t expected it with how boisterous Captain Dralik had been the night before, but he appreciated it, especially as everyone else was still sleeping. Ædarik, however, was leaning on the portside railings, yawning heavily. 

He hadn’t slept well and Dralik had insisted on buying everyone a drink, even the former prisoners, which didn’t help. So instead, he leaned there watching land drift past. It was an eerie sight. The entirety of the day in the small port he had been blind to the devastation the earthquake had caused. He saw it now. A sizable portion of the town was damaged with some of it in ruins, crushed by falling rocks. 

The further out they went, Ædarik also saw evidence of several wrecked ships. After each one, the sailors looked out to sea and saluted before bringing in their fists towards their hearts. It was a gesture that Ædarik had never seen before, but it didn’t take a genius to understand it’s significance. Another aspect of these sailors that he hadn’t expected. It still wasn’t enough to help with the uneasiness he was feeling about everything.

*****

On the first day, Seres woke up just past noon. It was a strange feeling. After five years of being a prisoner, she was finally going home. She wasn’t sure if she should be excited or relieved. Fortunately, she wasn’t overly anxious, unlike many of the others; they still hadn’t accepted that they were free. If it hadn’t been for Amran she might have been, but he had assured her that the captain and the lord and ladies in their company were genuine. She would still have preferred it if Rowan was more cognisant of the situation, but she had been asleep for almost the entire time. Seres wasn’t even sure if Rowan was aware that they were on a ship. There was little she could do about it though. Rowan had drained herself completely during the escape and then some.

As the day continued, the sailors started getting more and more jovial, but it never got to the point of them being rowdy. Even when they started drinking, they acted with remarkable sobriety which was a stark contrast to how they had been yesterday when the captain treated everyone to a drink regardless of age. What surprised Seres even more was that the captain, who looked more like a pirate than even the best artistic depictions, didn’t drink at all. From the way he declined a mug of ale at dinner, it seemed like it was contrary to his normal behaviour.

The crew and the captain weren’t the only people that were quiet on the first day. Everyone kept to themselves, almost depressingly so. She was no Empath, but she didn’t need to be to feel the oppressive weight of apprehension. She hated it, but she also didn’t know how to deal with it. Before, she had always been bright and cheerful, talking to everyone, but five years in captivity had locked that away and she was yet to find it. She may have been free, but her nature was not.

The next two days passed much like the first. Rowan still slept, having only woken up a few times to eat and relieve herself. Amran was meditating, though somewhat awkwardly with the rocking of the ship and everyone else remained quiet. Seres had to do something before she went insane. With little to do and no one willing to talk, she wandered the ship, making sure to keep out of the way of the sailors. It was a large ship, much larger than the ships that had taken them to the caves and notably less slender. It also glowed with the soft light of Resonance, more so than was normal for a ship. Seres had only ever seen this kind of Resonance a couple of times during naval parades and that had been on the Midiran Navy’s Flagships. She followed the Resonance to its most concentrated point, the figurehead. Before her was the majestic and practically naked figure of a Tæran woman decorated with crystals.

“She’s a real beauty, isn’t she?”

Seres jumped as a deep resonant voice spoke behind her. She turned to see the hulking form of the captain with his own Resonant glow. Even though he was on the small side if you compared him to an Al’duur, he was a giant amongst humans and he absolutely dwarfed Seres. Her ears drooped unconsciously at the sight of him; it was difficult not to be intimidated by him. 

“Excuse me?” Seres responded.

“The figurehead. I know you can see the Resonance from her,” Dralik boomed quietly.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” Seres lied.

“You can do better than that, lass. I may not be the smartest man, but even I know what gift the Mark of the Goddess provides.”

“That isn’t exactly common knowledge.”

“I did just say that I’m not a smart man.”

Seres wasn’t sure how to respond to that. She looked at him quizzically. ”Who are you?”

Dralik responded at a volume that could only be equated to that of a stage whisper. “I’m just a simple vice admiral enjoying his retirement, Your Highness.” 

The sailors didn’t react, but Ædarik and his friends who had been talking on deck certainly did. So did Seres. “How did you…” she stammered.

“I’d recognise you anywhere, even all grown up as you are. You probably don’t remember me so let me introduce myself again. I am Captain Dralik Vasra-Kaan, former Vice Admiral of the Midiran Royal Navy Vanguard. My family has served the crown for generations and it was I, under the command of your sister, who led the charge against the raiders that plagued our lands. We’ve been looking for you ever since. I never believed that I, out of the seven that were searching, would be the one to find you.”

Seres hadn’t recognised the name ‘Dralik’, but she did recognise his last name. The captain of her guard when she had been attacked had the name Vasra-Kaan. “Is that why your ship has a naval Resonance Array?” she asked, somewhat awe-struck.

“It is indeed. The crown called it a retirement gift.”

“Are we safe?”

“Every man and woman on this ship is a veteran and the hull has been reinforced with its own Resonance Array in addition to the mobility array in the figurehead. We will ensure your safety and that of the others to the best of our ability and then some.”

“Thank you.”

Seres excused herself after that and retreated below decks. She had a lot of things to process. 

*****

“How did you not know she was a princess?” Davra shouted at Ædarik.

“I thought there was something familiar about her name, but it isn’t like I’d ever seen her before,” he responded.

“Did they really just walk into that village after the earthquake?” asked Alena with a hint of doubt.

“I assure you that they did.”

“How can you be so certain?”

“They told me so.”

Not convinced, Alena looked around at the others. “I think he’s hiding something. Don’t you agree, ladies?”

All three of them nodded.

“I’m not lying!” He didn’t want to reveal the truth about Lord Feilan with Ashlin right there.

Unfortunately, it was Ashlin that continued to prod him. “Are we so untrustworthy?” she sniffled.

“No, no, no, no. It’s just…”

“Just what?”

“They were being kept prisoner. You heard the rumors when the princess disappeared? Well there was some truth to them.”

All four of his companions gave him a flat look that said, “What?” 

The floodgates opened. “There were these caves that they were being held in. I don’t know why but Lord Feilan had something to do with it, he was taking young girls from there and doing whatever he wanted to them before sending them back. That’s how I found out about this whole thing. During the party I accidentally discovered him with one of these girls. I couldn’t stop him, but I did follow the men back to the caves and I saved the girl. She’s here. The really young looking one. After that I got captured, but the man in charge treated me with respect. Then the earthquake happened and a rock hit me in the head. I collapsed but then Rowan, the girl with crimson hair, and the Ferran boy saved me.” He continued to describe the events as he remembered them. Davra took it all face on; Deilin excused herself at the mention of what Lord Feilan had done, her face dark with horror; Alena went white as a sheet, but remained; Ashlin was throwing up over the railings by the end of it.

“How could a man like that live with himself?” asked Alena when Ædarik finished.

“I don’t know,” Ædarik admitted.

“I’m more concerned with how he was able to act like there was nothing wrong,” Davra scowled.

“I promise I didn’t know,” cried Ashlin, her face looking slightly green. “Mother never said a thing.”

“You don’t think she was in on it do you?” pondered Davra.

“Impossible!” Ashlin objected. “Mother has a heart of gold.”

“It could be an act, just like with your father.”

“Stop right there, Davra,” Ædarik interjected, “We don’t know that and forcing it is just cruel on Ashlin. She’s innocent here.”

Davra bowed her head. “Sorry,” she apologised.

“What now?” asked Alena after a moment of silence.

“We take them to Midiris and then we go home. There isn’t much else we can do other than report this to the military and the Royal Bureau of Information.” 

“What if…”

“This isn’t the time for conspiracy theories, Davra.”

“But…”

“I’m sure that Queen Elarin of Llen Fær and the Midiran Royal Court will be investigating as well.”

“You have a point.”

After that, Ashlin looked up. “Can we talk about something else, please?”

“Sure thing,” responded Alena, “I’ll go get Deilin and we can talk Arik’s ears off about dresses or something.

Ædarik groaned slightly at the prospect, but he agreed that a change of conversation was appropriate. He smiled warmly at Ashlin and they spent the rest of the day talking about inane things.

Authors Note: You’ll notice that this is an extremely short chapter by my standards, being more in line with some of the Interludes. It has also been divided in two, with this being the best division point I feel. This is because I had a doctor’s appointment yesterday regarding the various issues that I’ve been having. That took up a large portion of my day and I wasn’t able to finish the chapter in time, especially as I am also very busy today. That is also why the chapter is late. However, I’m sure that I’ll be able to operate at a more healthy level, now that I have the appropriate medication for my jaw. Part two will be out later this week and will conclude the voyage. If I have time, I will also release Chapter 16 this week. One last thing. I am trying to get onto the first page of trending on Royal Road, so I you are enjoying the story, I would greatly appreciate it if you would give me a rating/review at this link. I would also appreciate it if you give me a boost here on Top Web Fiction.

Previous Chapter <-> Next Chapter

Chapter 14

The small group sighed in relief as they stepped out into the soft blush of dawn. Freedom! They had finally done it. Gone were the hellborn caves that had come so close to breaking them. They had been destroyed by Illyria’s wrath. The first part of Rowan’s quest was complete. She hadn’t saved everyone, far from it, but she had made a start and Lord Fein was dead. Rowan also took solace in knowing that Maro could have also lead people to freedom.

Out of the thirteen individuals in their group that had escaped, not one was without scars. They weren’t all physical. In fact most of them weren’t. Rather, the majority were of the mind and soul. Even the brands on their backs also branded their souls. Yet, despite knowing pain and suffering beyond their years, they hadn’t given in.

Many would consider them to be poor broken souls. Rowan might have been inclined to agree, but she saw the truth of things. She had seen people break in the caves. She had seen people shatter like glass, only to be forged into a grim and horrible weapon. Instead, she and the others found themselves on the other side of the gauntlet battered and cracking at the seams but still whole for the most part. She wasn’t naïve enough to think that none of them had been changed by their experiences. For better or worse, they were not the same people they had been before they had been taken. Now they had to make a choice.

Rowan turned to the last member of their group, the only one who hadn’t been a slave, Lord Ædarik. “You came here from the castle, right?” she asked.

“I did, but I really can’t recommend taking you there,” he replied.

“That’s not what I’m asking. Castles tend to have settlements nearby to help support the family living there. Can you take us there?”

“I can do that.”

“Good. Then you’ll need to get us some food from the castle.”

“How am I supposed to do that?”

“You got out didn’t you?”

“Well yes.”

“Then you can get back in. You might want to get some other supplies as well. Maybe a change of clothes.”

“You’re giving me a lot of opportunities to betray you,” said Ædarik with a quizzical look.

“Do you want me to stab you?”

“No.”

“Then don’t say stupid things. You said you wanted to save us. I’m going to hold to that. Now show us that not all lords are evil sadistic fucks and see this through to the end.”

“You got me,” he finally responded, having seen how serious Rowan was. “You have my word as a lord and on my family’s oath to the king. With that said, call me Arik. What is your name?”

“Rowan.”

*****

The journey to the nearby village was long and slow. Amran couldn’t walk and the others barely had enough energy to support him. Rowan was only managing to stay active through sheer force of will. Her body was drained and breathing was difficult, but they weren’t home free yet. 

The sun was nearing its peak by the time the village came into sight. Rowan almost collapsed from relief when they saw the villagers; Seres only just managed to catch her. They circled round to approach the village from the other side to avoid anyone from the castle seeing them. Arik suggested it as he wasn’t sure how many guards were in the know. 

When they came into view, a woman with a wicker basket saw them. “Som’n come quick,” she exclaimed, “there’s another group of them there children.” Some other people came hurrying over in response to her call and someone went running into the village.

“I hope this is a good sign,” muttered Seres quietly when she saw the congregation of men and women waiting for them.

“Me too,” Rowan groaned.

Back amongst the villagers, a younger man looked at the woman that had called them over. “They be a lookin’ like they be needin’ some help, Geta,” he said.

“Then go then there helpin, lad,” the woman responded. Shamefaced he took a few of the younger men and women to help the strange group. As they approached, Ædarik walked forwards to greet them.

“Salutations, sir. My name is Lord Ædarik and we are in need of your assistance.”

The young man man and his friends stepped forwards to start helping people along. “Right you is, yer lordship. You isn’t the first such group to come here wandering.” 

“We aren’t?” Ædarik responded, somewhat surprised.

“No, yer lordship. The other came a wanderin’ in with the first beatin’ of the heart.” 

“The first beating of the heart?” Ædarik asked with a rather perplexed expression.

“Just as I said, yer lordship.”

“What does that mean?” Ædarik said again, this time making sure to clarify his confusion.

“First light o’course,” the man replied confidently, as if it was obvious.

Rowan’s heart soared at the news. Another group had gotten out and from the timing, it was likely Maro and the others in her cell. “Are they safe?” she asked.

“That they is, young miss.” 

With the confirmation, she finally passed out.

“Is she there okay?” one of the young women asked.

“She needs a bed,” Ædarik ordered, “and water.”

After that, more people came to help and they were led into the village. It was in shambles. The earthquake had destroyed several buildings and Ædarik could see the bodies laid out to rest. Even so, the villagers faced the disaster with a smile and those that could worked together to get everything back in shape. Some were clearing away rubble, others were rebuilding and those in the fields were harvesting the damaged crop.

In the village, they were reunited with the other group who were for the most part, in remarkably better condition. As Rowan had suspected, the group had been lead by Maro, a girl of around sixteen years of age. When they escaped, they had also found the young girl that Ædarik had saved. As far as he could tell, she hadn’t stopped crying.

Ædarik decided to wait until nightfall to return to the castle. He could have left earlier and tried the front gate, but he didn’t feel confident explaining why he was outside the castle walls. Instead he planned on using the same route that he and the slavers had taken to get outside.

“I swear I’ve gotten more active use out of my Gift in the past twenty four hours than have I in the rest of my life,” he muttered to himself as he took to the shadows en route to the castle.

The secret entrance to the castle was extremely well hidden, even more so than a standard postern. On the flip side, it was also less well defended than the postern as it appeared to be largely forgotten. When Ædarik found it again, he could feel how thick the air was with dust and cobwebs. He was surprised that he didn’t notice it the first time with how suffocating it felt.

Ædarik continued on through as the passage led him into the castle’s wine cellar. In hindsight, it made him laugh a little bit. He remembered how in the stories he used to read, the secret passage always led to the wine cellar. The smell as he entered the room was dizzying. Countless broken bottles made the air thick with alcoholic fumes. 

“This has got to be a liquid fortune,” Ædarik winced as he stepped into a sticky red. Each time he moved through the cold cellar he was treated to a sickly squelching sound. 

He hurried through, not wanting to linger lest he get himself drunk on the fumes. When he ascended to the ground floor of the keep, he saw the remnants of the carnage that the quake had wrought. Just small bits of broken ceramics that had been missed or damaged frames. Beyond that, the keep was surprisingly clean.

The servants must have been working overtime.

Ædarik’s plan to get in and out without being seen soon came to an end as he stumbled into the path of a maid. “Oh my!” she exclaimed. “Lord Ædarik? Is that you?”

“Ah, yes. Sorry, I didn’t mean to get in your way, Miss Tama?” He flubbed the last part, trying to remember the maid’s name.

“That’s correct, Lord Ædarik. Where have you been? The castle staff have been trying to find you all day.”

Shit!

Ædarik had to improvise fast. “That’s my bad,” he apologised, “It seems that, in my drunken stupor, I wandered into one of Lord Feilan’s wine cellars. I think I remember an earthquake and everything crashing down around me. Something must have hit me on the head because I don’t remember much else.” He pointed towards the crusted blood on his scalp to give some credence to his lie. It was hasty, but she seemed convinced.

“Oh no! We need to get you to the castle healer immediately.”

“It’s fine. I just need a bath.”

“I’ll have one prepared, but I must insist on you being seen by the healer. She can check in on you while you bathe.”

“Very well. I will acquiesce. In return I would like you to do me a favour.”

Her response came with a smile, “And what would that be, milord.” Ædarik couldn’t help but notice the not so subtle change in her tone.

“None of what you are probably thinking, sorry. I’d like you to prepare me a hamper for tomorrow morning.” 

Thankfully the maid didn’t seem too disappointed at the rejection and was instead more curious about the actual request. “May I ask what for, milord?”

“The village, Miss Tama,” Ædarik explained, “I imagine they were hit hard by the earthquake and a little charity never hurts. I will of course pay if need be.”

Tama smiled more at that. “I’m sure a little bit of food won’t be missed too much, milord. Now let’s get you that bath.” 

With that said and done, she led him towards the East wing of the castle and into his quarters. Once there she started to draw the bath while making sure there was nothing else he needed or wanted.

He was soon soaking in hot water contemplating the events of the past day. He felt sick remembering what Lord Feilan had done. He had to wonder if Landras knew, if any of his family knew, and if they did, how could they be okay with it? There was also the strange situation with Lady Ashlin. Landras had never mentioned her being adopted.

Such thoughts continued for the duration of his soak. He had hoped they would be interrupted by the healer like Tama had suggested, but she decided to wait until he was finished bathing.

When she finally made an appearance, he was greeted by an older lady with grey hair kept in a neat bun and weirdly high cheekbones. Her uniform was notably different to that of the maids. From what Ædarik could tell, it was an older style of dress made from a sturdy grey wool and covered with a white apron. In her hands she held a small bag filled with medical implements. 

“Greetings, Lord Ædarik. My name is Latria and I am the resident healer of this castle. Miss Tama informs me that you were injured during the earthquake. I can’t say I’m surprised. It was particularly vicious and few people had the sense to get underneath a table. Now tell me, was it pride or inebriation that led to your injury?” She spoke with a clear and crisp tone that did well to hide how tired she was from dealing with idiotic lords and ladies all day.

“The latter, ma’am,” Ædarik admitted, staying true to his earlier lie. “I found myself rather intoxicated and in a wine cellar when the earthquake hit. Something hit me in the head and I passed out.” Once again, he motioned to where the rock had hit him on the head.

“Very well. Any signs of nausea, dizziness, memory loss…” She continued to list various symptoms as she examined him and concluded that he had a concussion. Then she went on to properly clean the injury and ensure it was free from any debris or shrapnel before stitching closed.

“Thank you, Miss Latria,” said Ædarik when she announced that the job was done. “Before you go, I was hoping I could ask about Lady Ashlin. I was rather enchanted by her at the party and wanted to make sure she was well amongst other things.”

“Apart from a sprained ankle and some bruises, she is well. Though she and your friends were rather distraught when you didn’t show up for breakfast.”

“Damn. I’ll need to apologise when I see them.”

“That would be wise.”

“Thanks. I also wanted to ask about Lady Ashlin’s rather unique appearance. Has she always had such magical hair?”

“Her hair has been that colour for as long as she has been in my care. Before then I cannot say for sure, but I would assume so.”

“You mean you weren’t the one to deliver her?”

“I was not, though I have been told that it was a traumatic delivery for Lady Larissa. I was actually hired just before Lady Ashlin was born due to the previous healer tragically passing away.”

“That’s awful!”

“It is indeed. Should your symptoms worsen or you need anything, send a servant right away.”

“Will do. Thank you, Miss Latria.”

After that, Latria bowed her head and took her leave. Once again, Ædarik was left to his own thoughts. Not wanting to face them, he retreated to his bed and collapsed from exhaustion.

*****

The next morning, Ædarik was woken by a loud knocking at his door. He groaned as the knocking got even louder. “I’m awake. Who is it?” 

Instead of getting an answer in words, the door flew open and his friends came running in. “You’re alive!” Deilin cried. “We thought something terrible had happened to you.”

“Easy there, Deilin,” Ædarik smiled. ” It was just a small bump on the head.”

“Are you really okay?” Alena asked.

“Sure he is,” Davra answered in his place. “It’ll take more than that to end the tale of Arik, heartthrob extraordinaire.”

Ædarik blushed at that. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Sure you don’t.”

Not wanting that particular conversation to go any further, Ædarik quickly tried to change the subject. “Where’s Landras?” he asked.

“Talking with his father,” Deilin answered, still sniffling slightly.

Damn!

“Is something wrong?”

“I don’t know.”

“He said something about staying behind,” Davra added.

“What if there’s an earthquake?” 

“We said the same thing,” responded Alena.

Davra shook her head. “He seems to think it will be fine. We’re leaving, however. Ashlin will be coming with us. We managed to convince Lord Feilan and Lady Larissa that it would be much safer in the capital and a learning experience for her.” She winked at the last line.

“I agree, it will be a good experience for her. When are we leaving?”

“As soon as you’re ready.”

He was afraid Davra would say that. “I’ve got something I need to do first. I’ll meet you at the docks.”

“And what is that?” Alena asked.

Ædarik hesitated. “I thought that I would bring some food down to the villagers.”

Alena’s tail started to swish as the idea. “We can help with that.”

“Honestly, I can do it myself.”

“I insist.”

“Fine!” He knew there would be no persuading Alena in any meaningful way.

His friends left after that to allow him to get dressed and pack his things.

*****

Before long, Ædarik, Davra, Alena, Deilin, and Ashlin were walking out of the castle gates with two guards and a wagon full of food and supplies. It was significantly more than Ædarik had expected, but Ashlin had insisted that this was the bare minimum they could do. 

Unfortunately, the soldiers were going to be a problem. When they were out of earshot from the castle, Ædarik approached them. “Gentlemen, I would like to offer each of you the deal of a lifetime.”

Rightfully so, the two men gave him a cautious look. “Go on,” one of them said.

“I am offering a full year’s pay plus an additional gold sovereign for each of you and all you need to do is not report anything that does not directly threaten Lady Ashlin to Lord Feilan or Lady Larissa.”

The two guards looked at each other and then in perfect sync said, “We can do that.”

When they arrived at the village, they were quickly surrounded by a babble of farmers and other such workers. The five of them had their hands full when the Ferran girl that Rowan had been especially protective of walked over expectantly. Ædarik handed her a large bag of food and she scampered away.

“I’m going to look around and see if anyone needs help,” Ædarik called out.

“Go ahead!” the four girls chorused.

With some food in hand, Ædarik went in the direction the Ferran girl had run off to. Finding himself at the door to one of the houses, he knocked. The woman that had called out to the others when they arrived opened the door. “Yer late,” she said brusquely. “Get inside. They is waiting for yet.”

With little choice other than to oblige, he stepped into the squat house. Inside he saw the Ferran girl, the Ferran boy, Maro, and Rowan who was still sleeping. Out of the three conscious people, it was the boy that spoke. “Seres tells me that you didn’t come alone.”

“There was no helping it,” Ædarik apologised. “They insisted on joining me. I guarantee they won’t be a danger. They may even be able to help get you out of here.”

“What about the guards?” Maro asked.

“I bribed them. As long as Lady Ashlin isn’t in danger, they won’t say a thing.”

“That’ll have to do, Amran,” said the girl now identified as Seres. It was a strangely familiar name and not just because of its similarity to Særis, his home country.

Amran relented and looked at Ædarik again. “So how can your friends help us?” he asked. 

“We’re going back to the capital. I’m sure I can convince them to take you with us.”

“Which capital?” Seres asked.

“Særis, of course,” Ædarik responded as if it were obvious. 

“Through what means?” asked Amran.

“By ship. Going through the Straights of Fire.”

Seres brightened up at that. “You mean we’ll be going past Midiris?”

“Yes?”

“If you take there, I’ll make sure you are rewarded.”

“How?”

“That’s not important,” Amran interjected. “Can you do it?”

“I’ll give it my all,” Ædarik responded honestly.

“Good. Now go.” 

Nodding, Ædarik turned on his heel and left. Just before stepping outside, he noticed Seres shake Rowan awake.

“Well this is going to be a challenge,” he muttered to himself as he walked on over to the others.

“Oh, you’re back,” Ashlin called to him. “We’re almost done here.” 

“That’s great!” Ædarik replied.

“You better not have been lazing around while we were doing all the hard work,” Davra teased.

“Hardly. I actually found some people I think we can help.”

“I thought that is what we were already doing?” Deilin asked.

“Even more so. Yesterday a group that suffered greatly from the earthquake arrived in the village. Some of them are barely fifteen and they need help that the village can’t provide. I was thinking we could take them with us.”

“More charity?”

“Why not? I’ll cover the expenses. You just need to agree.”

“I say we allow it,” said Ashlin with a smile while Davra muttered something to herself immediately after.

“If you’re paying, we can’t exactly complain,” responded Deilin.

“Sounds good to me,” added Alena.

“I guess you have your answer,” Davra conceded.

“Excellent. I’ll let them know. I should probably see about hiring another wagon as well.”

Within the hour, they were on their way to the nearby port town with twenty-nine adolescents and young adults. Ædarik spent the better part of the afternoon trying to haggle for a reasonable price. He was on his third failure when a passing Midiran captain took one look at Seres and immediately barged into the conversation, kicking the female captain he was trying to bargain with out of her chair 

“Get out here, you sea cow,” the large captain shouted. “The lad here isnae gonna take an offer like that.”

“Fuck you, Dralik!” the female captain shouted back.

“Shitting hell, Mari, and go shove a spyglass up yer pisser while yet at it.” 

The two of them threw expletives at each other for a good few minutes. Ædarik was beginning to think he should leave when the captain turned to face him. “Sorry about Mari, lad. She’s a lovely lass once you get past the drinking and the foul mouth, but you cannae fault her for trying to take a lad such as yerself for all he’s worth. Thing is thirty-four passengers that cannae help on deck is an expensive proposition.”

“I can help,” Ædarik interrupted defensively.

“Even if I believed that, the others cannae do shit. Now back to what I was saying before you interrupted me. I will offer you the voyage at a more than reasonable price. All you need to do is tell me that girl’s name.” 

Ædarik turned to see who Dralik was pointing at when he saw a pair of auburn ears twitch. “That’d be Seres,” he responded after identifying her.

“In which case I would like to offer you travel for no more than half the cost of any additional food that will required to accommodate the lot of ya.”

Ædarik was flabbergasted by the offer. “That’s beyond generous.”

“That it is,” the large captain bellowed. “People will be calling you a pirate with a deal like this.”

“Well I’d be a fool to decline. When do we leave?”

“First tide on the morrow. Load yerselves onto my ship, The Wind Rose. As you may have heard, my name’s Dralik. If anyone causes you and yours any trouble in port, drop my name and they should back off.” 

Dralik then spat into his palm and proffered it towards Ædarik expectantly. Fearing he had to do same, Ædarik decided to get it over and done with, spitting into his own palm and clasping the man’s hand.

The next day, they set sail.

Author’s Note: From this update onwards, I intend to start building up my backlog for patrons, By the time I’m done, patrons will be five chapters ahead of the public release. Unlocking these chapters early will only cost £5 a month and is by no means mandatory, but it is greatly appreciated. It will also give you access to some other exclusive benefits. Once I’m done with rebuilding my back log, I will start work on the first side story “The Merchant and the Bard” which will cover how Gyren and Hæra met and fell in love

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