The day was finally shifting into evening, the sun disappearing in the west. The forest was now dark with a navy blue and growing pitch black.
Damien and Ashlyn made their way back to her house and found Calda sitting on her sofa, lost in a book.
"And where have you two been?" Calda asked skeptically.
"At the river," Ashlyn said, trying to tame her smile. "We took the time to dry off."
Placing her book down, Calda rose to face them. "Perhaps it's best you two say good night now. It's late."
"Of course, Mother. But-- could I do something first? Damien and I got ourselves bruised pretty badly. I'd like to take care of him before he goes home."
Calda scanned the two of them, her brows folding inward. "It seems Damien cannot stay out of trouble anymore, can he?"
"It was...an accident," Ashlyn said. "If anything, I'm responsible."
Calda feigned a dramatic sigh. "You know where the medicines are, but you best replace them after. They are not expendable like you seem to think."
"Of course. Thank you." Ashlyn moved into the healing room with Damien, closing the door. As expected, she pulled a medicine vial from the rows and handed it to him.
"You really know your medicines," Damien commented, unstopping the cork.
"Mostly my Mother's medicines," she said. "A lot of them she brews herself."
"I believe that." He drank half the vial and swished it down. "Ick."
"It may taste awful, but you will sleep well tonight. I promise."
"I'm counting on it," he said, checking his scrapes and bruises. He waited until Ashlyn finished the contents of the vial before pecking her lips. "I'm not going to forget this day," he muttered. "I don't want it to end just yet."
Ashlyn grinned, taking hold of his wrist. "It doesn't have to," she whispered. Peeking outside the door, she saw Calda hopping up to retrieve something from the kitchen. "Alright," she turned and whispered to Damien. "Come with me."
She brought him to her bedroom and shut them inside. Ashlyn sat on her bed, lighting the candle on her nightstand.
"Wow." Damien scanned the tidy space. "I never thought your room would be smaller than mine."
"Well, not all of us can live with an elf lord," she said.
"Why would anyone make you live in this scrawny house?"
"It's not scrawny, it's functional. I have everything I need right here."
"If you say so," he chuckled, sitting down beside her. "I never thanked you for what you did for me, did I?"
"Not that I can recall."
"It's just...at the time it didn't feel like you were saving me. Giving me a home."
"I know," she said. "You felt like it was another prison, only a prison with no walls."
"Uhuh." He winced at her. "I thought I asked you to stop doing that."
"What's it like knowing everyone's secrets?"
"I don't," she said. "Most people don't want me digging around in their lives, so I'm used to ignoring them."
"But you could if you wanted to, right?"
"Not unless I'm really focused. Reading people is just as difficult as reading anything else."
"You seem to have no problem reading me."
"Well, that's because you let me in once before." She smiled. "And because you're so...open."
"Does it hurt when you use your power on me?"
"No, not at all."
"Oh. There is pain on my end when you do."
"Really? Damien, I'm sorry. I didn't know. It's no wonder you don't like it." She paused. "I will only see what you wish me to see."
Damien breathed out, glancing outside her window. "I should probably go now," he said. "You look like you need a good rest and I'm exhausted."
"Would you please stay a little longer?"
"I don't know, Ash...I have things to do in the morning."
"Is there nothing I can do to change your mind?" Ashlyn leaned in, gripping his arm and kissing him.
He did like the taste of her, as well as her natural scent. Perhaps he could stay until she fell asleep, until she was no longer able to protest his leaving. He let out a contented sigh while laying back. Ashlyn joined him, wrapping her arm around his rib.
Damien left a kiss on her forehead. "Are you happy now?"
"Extremely," she said.
In the morning, Ashlyn woke to the sunlight streaming through her window. Beside her, Damien was resting peacefully, a gentle snore coming from his mouth.
Ashlyn sat up, nudging Damien awake. "Damien...I didn't mean to fall asleep so fast. You should get back home now. Before my Mother sees you."
"Hmm?" Damien sat up groggily, rubbing his eyes. It took him a moment to gather his bearings. "Oh, no! I'm going to be late for breakfast."
"I'm sorry." Ashlyn beat her forehead. "Tell Kallus this is my fault."
"Oh, I definitely will," he smirked.
Ashlyn did her best to conceal Damien as he headed for the front door. Calda was in the kitchen cooking a hot meal, but when she heard the door to Ashlyn's room opening, she looked over to see.
"Ashlyn?" Calda's face hardened at the sight of a boy coming out of Ashlyn's room. "What is going on?" Then she scowled at Damien. "By the Fates, did you spend the night? You best be getting home, Damien."
"You don't have to tell me," Damien said, closing the front door behind him.
When he was gone, Calda turned to Ashlyn. "What are you thinking? This is unusual behavior for you, Ashlyn."
"I'm sorry, Mother," Ashlyn said. "It won't happen again."
"You know my rules, you can't have males staying overnight with you."
"Yes, I know. Nothing happened between us."
"Good. You cannot go losing your reputation over something like this. I trust you to be more responsible."
Ashlyn dipped her head. "Yes, Mother."
Upon her mother's request, Ashlyn sat down at the table for breakfast. She was well into her meal before Calda spoke again.
"Have you given any thought to your future? Have the healers at the Mages Academy invited you back?"
"I haven't heard anything," Ashlyn said. "Honestly, I don't wish to join them this coming year."
"Because I'm not a good healer, that's why. I try, Mother, I do. I think Annael and the other healers are afraid to say it: I'm not cut-out for that life."
"There are plenty of other areas for you to find work in. They need scholars, don't they?"
"And that's so dull. As a healer, at least I get to travel."
"Well..." Calda let out a sigh. "If you find no pleasure in the life of mage, then perhaps you might as well begin your training as a diplomat. I can write to the King and inform him of your coming."
"You mean move to Tauros? What business do I have trying to be a diplomat?"
"Ohh." Calda shook her head, sipping her water. "Now that you have come of age, it is time that you knew."
"The King intends to give you the crown over Lorianthil. When you are ready, of course. I imagine that he will be summoning you to Tauros soon."
"And you didn't tell me this, why?"
"When you have a child, I hope you understand then how much I want to hold onto your innocence. But we both have a duty to uphold now. Ithilié decided this for you a long time ago. She charged me with raising you until you were ready."
Ashlyn folded her arms, scoffing. "Is that what I'm reduced to? Because I'm a Sorceress, I have to give up my dreams?"
"And what are your dreams?"
"I...want to spend time with Damien. Beyond that, I— I will figure it out as I go."
"Ithilié was a dreamer," Calda began. "She dreamed of building a world in which humans and elves could live together, and she had the help of a man who was just as bold as she was. Believe me, troublesome boys like Damien have a way of corroding a young girl's passion. If you don't move to Tauros, who knows what your dreams may turn out to be?"
"But I want to stay," Ashlyn said softly. "It's not the right time for me to leave."
"Ashlyn, as a queen, your marriage will likely be arranged. And it will be most advantageous to the kingdom, not yourself. Damien will understand."
"No," Ashlyn frowned, her hands splaying along the table. "No one is going to make me leave!" She stormed off, shutting herself in her room.
"Ashlyn..." Calda sighed, coming up to her door. "We don't have a choice in this matter."
"Take the time you need. We will talk when you are more suited for it."
It was mid-morning by the time Damien made it back to the manor. He came into the dining room, dressed in yesterday's soiled clothes. Kallus, Lanara, and Naelen were still finishing their breakfast as Damien entered and sat down.
"Ah, look who's finally chosen to come home," Kallus commented. "Where were you?"
"I...stayed at Calda's house last night," Damien said, keeping his eyes on his silverware. "I'm sorry for not coming back sooner. I was tired."
"You had us very worried," Lanara said. "What were you up to yesterday that was so tiring?"
"Ash and I went to the river. It just took a lot out of me, that's all."
Naelen smirked. "That's all? Like we really believe that."
"Shut up, Naelen."
"I think you should tell my parents what's really going on. You're falling for the girl, aren't you? That's why you spent the night with her."
"Is that true?" Lanara asked.
"I...uh--" Damien cut off, scooting out from the table. "I'll be upstairs if you need me."
"Look at that," Naelen chuckled. "Silence is always his go-to."
"Damien." Kallus spoke sternly, causing the boy to stop.
"What?" Damien groaned while turning.
"You and I need to have a talk."