When I began this monster over Thanksgiving break, it was supposed to just be a oneshot—a pretty long oneshot, but a oneshot, nevertheless. Since then, it has insisted on going on and on and on, and this update is no longer the conclusion I had hoped it would be. In fact, I might not even bother with the companion piece I had planned. I might just continue this thing, because it is clear to me now that it is never going to end.

Long story short, this tale is causing me more stress and anxiety than any other facet of my life right now, and I work in food service.

(Which, by the way, was the inspiration for the middle portion… ;D)

In all seriousness, pop on over to the Post-Deltora Stress Syndrome forum and hang out with us. We are ever so much fun. And in the months to come, I may start hosting Fic-A-Thons to get some creativity going.

I feel like Lindal may be slightly OOC here, even for the feminine side of her character that I have been exploring. Therefore, I feel it necessary to remind y'all that I am writing a romance. Also, her habit of drinking the good stuff kind of aids her OOC-ness in this chapter. It….. Will make much more sense once you see the context of this warning. :P


It was the middle of that seventh day, and Lief and Jasmine found themselves alone in Lindal's house. Their older friends still hadn't returned from whatever it was they were doing, and Lief couldn't bring himself to care what that might be. As Barda had said, they were grown people who could decide for themselves what they did. It was none of his business. And if his own cheeky suspicions were correct, he didn't want to know what they were up to.

Not too long ago, Jasmine had decided that she was well enough to get out of bed and stumble to the couch. She said it might make her feel better to be up; but mostly, it just seemed to have brought her massive headache back with a vengeance. While she sat groaning in pain on the sofa, Lief had made a pot of the herbal tea Lindal had bought for her, as well as a plate of dry toast. After forcing down the toast and drinking a cup of the tea, Jasmine agreed that her headache was receding again, and she had recovered enough to carry on a conversation.

"What happen last night?" she asked, sipping her tea. "I can't really remember any of it. Lindal says I spent the better part of an hour snapping at her but… She seemed so annoyed this morning. What did I even say?"

"Quite a lot about keeping her hands out of Barda's pants, and some other inappropriate things I won't bother repeating," Lief answered as evenly as he could, pouring tea for himself. He hadn't gone right to bed the previous night, as he had planned. Instead, he had found Jasmine babbling angrily at Lindal in the hallway, and it had taken a lot of persuasion and a small amount of force to finally drag her away. She had stayed up for another hour, babbling angrily to Lief instead, until she had eventually fainted into what he had hoped would be a deep and sound sleep.

Except that sleep had been disrupted twice, as her small body railed against the poison she had forced into it. Lief had been beside himself with worry, and would have helped gladly; but Lindal had swooped valiantly to the rescue both times and told him just stay out of the way. So he had no idea what else had happened in the night, and clearly Jasmine wasn't sure, either.

It had been a long and eventful night, and he wondered to himself how Lindal seemed so well rested today. He certainly wasn't. As he sat back with his tea, Jasmine groaned again, this time in embarrassment, and let her face fall tiredly into her free hand.

"Why did I do that?" she grumbled. "Why did I do that? Lief, promise you won't let me do that ever again."

"I'll do my best. You have a habit of getting what you want."

She hummed thoughtfully and sipped her tea again, cringing at the thought of how she had behaved.

"Jasmine, we've been here for a week already," Lief commented, trying to turn to a more practical topic. Jasmine had a certain appreciation for practicality. Grim as it was to think of continuing their quest, perhaps she would feel more like herself. "Certainly, we've needed time to rest and make proper plans; but how much more time do we really need to spend here? We need to think of going soon."

"I know," Jasmine sighed, more like herself already. "Really, we should have left days ago. Now we're just playing around, wasting precious time. Just look around this city. Things are already so much better here, now that the Sister of the East is destroyed. All of Deltora deserves this; but while we wait here, the rest of the land is in anguish. That… It hurts me to even think of."

Lief smiled at her, even though she wasn't looking at him to see it. He knew there were many people in the kingdom who would be shocked and even indignant to think of this young woman being their queen. He was expected to choose a fine, educated woman from a respectable family to be his wife. What a pity it was to think that they couldn't see how perfectly suited she was to lead them at their king's side.

Well, I see it, he reminded himself. And with time, they will see it, also.

"Doom knows what has happened, and where we are," he commented. "That is a start."

Jasmine huffed slightly to herself. "It's a good thing he thought to send Ebony for news; if he hadn't, he never would have gotten any. Kree still isn't well enough to travel that far on his own, and I'd rather keep an eye on him."

"So there's no way to let him know when we plan to move on?"

"Not unless he thinks to send Ebony again, which I doubt he will. Our previous letter will have satisfied him, I think. We had little else to report, and he knew it; and you know how cautious and secretive he is. He won't send another bird unless he finds it absolutely necessary. We may simply have to leave a note in Lindal's care, to be picked up after we have already gone."

Thinking briefly about that, but mostly thinking about what he was going to say in his letter to Doom and how he was going to encrypt it, Lief nodded decidedly. "I can have something written in less than an hour, then. I can get started on it right now."

Jasmine hummed again, a slightly different tone in her voice, and suddenly placed her free hand on his knee. "We've already frittered away a week," she said, surprisingly lightly. "What's another hour or two?"

Lief stared at her, not quite prepared for the sudden contact. There was a glint in her eyes that he wasn't sure he had seen there before. "I thought we were anxious to be gone," he pointed out.

"And what are a few antics of our own?" she continued, running her hand enticingly up his leg. "Everyone will be used to that by now."

Lief felt his breath catch in his throat, and gripped his cup tightly in what felt like a vain attempt at self-control. "Jasmine… What are you saying…?"

She bent to place her mug of tea on the floor beside her empty plate, as if to make a point. "There, you see? We've made a mess of Lindal's living room. We should… Clean it up, don't you think?"

That was what Lief had been expecting. On any other day, he would have flushed scarlet and tried to talk her out of it. After the previous night, however, the thought flashed through his mind merely as one of several possibilities, and frankly as one of the least likely. It came to him instead that he, too, was a grown person and was perfectly capable of making his own choices. He had all the control in the world over what happened next.

And whatever happened in Broome could stay in Broome, he decided.

As Jasmine sat upright again, looking dizzy from the effort of leaning over, he surprised her by pulling her into his arms. He nearly splashed hot tea on them both in the process, but didn't give that much thought. Suddenly, it seemed like everything else was vanishing around him.

"I don't know if Lindal would appreciate us cleaning her house," he teased. "She might even be furious."

"Ooh, so there's danger," Jasmine whispered mischievously. "Don't we live for danger, though?"

"Do you think you're up to this? I'd hate to push you to hard."

"I could do anything right now, I think. As I understand it, cleaning the house can make all kinds of pains seem less. It could do me a lot of good, just now."

Lief silently agreed that it would do him a lot of good as well, but more words seemed pointless. He was done with talking, now that they were standing on a precipice. Instead he pressed his mouth over hers and kissed her with all the might he dared just yet. Jasmine didn't hold back at all; she returned the gesture with all her passion, daring him to keep up with her.

He pulled away for only a moment, to quickly place his cup on the floor with the other dishes to be actually cleaned up later. Then he returned to her, and this time he didn't hold back at all. It seemed like he crashed into her like a rolling wave which she hadn't quite expected. Not when he was normally so modest and so very law abiding. She recovered right away from her pleasant surprised and rolled right back into him with full force.

The rest of the world was dead to them for the moment. There was only the two of them, their fingers tangled in each other's hair and clothes, and the couch. Obeying an instinct that had come to him from the deep recesses of his being, he slid his hand under her shirt, seeking the warmth of her skin. She jerked suddenly at his touch and gasped softly.

"Your hands are cold," she mumbled.

"But you are so warm," he whispered back, as if it explained everything. And it certainly seemed to. She leaned into him with renewed energy, even though she shivered as his other hands joined the first. He couldn't believe how badly he wanted to touch her. And as she began to tug at his own shirt, he couldn't believe how badly she wanted to touch him in return.

For being so ill and confused, she certainly had plenty of energy, all of a sudden. And instead of questioning that, he was just sincerely appreciative. She slid her leg over his and wrapped herself around him like a blanket, still pulling at his shirt, desperate to have it gone. Somehow, it was like all her trickiest curves, angles, and edges fit perfectly into his, like puzzle pieces. It only made him want her closer and closer.

She was so impatient, he was ready to just pull his shirt off and forget about it. But he hesitated as a startling thought crossed his mind. That simple piece of fabric was all that separated her from the Belt—especially the Opal and Topaz, at its very center. As badly as he wanted her, his instinct to protect her was far stronger.

"Jasmine, the Belt—"

"The Belt, indeed," she whispered back, unable to be bothered, and in fact sounding as if she had an idea. She ran her hands down his sides until they reached the two ends of the Belt, and paused as she deliberately gripped the gems there. Understanding as she did, Lief also paused and placed his hands over hers. In their right hands was the Amethyst, soothing any doubts they still had and calming their racing hearts. In their left hands was the Diamond, giving them strength and aiding their cause—for what love could be truer than theirs?

The sensation of deep magic was flowing through them both like cool water, preparing them for the plans they had made. After a moment, their hearts calmed but very full, they shared a passionate but amazingly peaceful embrace.

"I love you," she whispered, sounding suddenly like she was close to tears. "I love you."

"I love you so much," he whispered back, holding her close. "I don't want to hurt you. I've hurt you so many times in the past, and I never want that to happen again. I only want you to be safe."

Jasmine raised a hand to his face and looked into his eyes with great warmth. "I'm not afraid of the Belt," she said softly. "You've shared its powers with me many times, before. It would be an honor to share that again. And besides… It is inevitable, isn't it?"

Indeed, it was inevitable. Lief hadn't taken the Belt off once since returning from the Shadowlands, and had sworn then that he would never do so. He didn't remove it to sleep, change clothes, or even to bathe. It was as if it had become a physical part of his body that couldn't be simply removed like a piece of clothing—the way it was meant to be. It was easy enough, when his body was his own. And so he had never considered before that this would make any kind of intimacy difficult, or at least extremely awkward.

Now that he did consider it, it all seemed very unfair to Jasmine—the only woman he could ever be this intimate with. The Belt was already such a burden, such a responsibility, which he sometimes had to shoulder with all his courage. He hated to think that if she became his wife, she would have to carry that weight, as well. There would be no other choice for her.

The temptation to take the Belt off, just for a few minutes—perhaps to hide it under the couch cushions, where no enemy could possibly take it without his knowing—was suddenly so overwhelming he felt slightly sick. It felt less like a thing of wonder and power, and more like a hindrance, standing between him and what he had wanted for so long.

But Jasmine would never stand for such a thing. She would be mortified if she knew that he would consider doing such a thing, just for her sake. She would be disappointed in him for placing a moment's desire ahead of his duty. And it seemed that she had known and understood the choice long before it had occurred to him. Perhaps his mother had mentioned it to her, he realized—warned her that it was part of being wed to the ruler of Deltora, and could never be avoided.

However she had learned of it, Jasmine had plainly made her peace with it and happily cast her lot with his long ago. She had made her choice, and was unwilling to turn from it. If anything, she wanted to move forward, regardless of what could go wrong.

I wish someone had mentioned it to me, he thought, a vague anger flaring in his heart. What grief I could have unknowingly led her into, if I hadn't thought of it when I did. This is why I wish people would talk to me about these things!

Seeing the obvious conflict raging in his eyes, Jasmine took his hand and lowered it to the Diamond once again. Its natural strength and passion flowed through him once more, pushing the conflict from his mind, bringing back the innocent desire he had been enjoying before. Seeing and feeling it return, Jasmine gripped his shirt collar and pulled him forward slightly, until they were nose to nose. There was no fear at all in her fiery green eyes. Only that same innocent desire, and even a bit of excited curiosity.

"Take. This. Off."

Her fearlessness was so inspiring. She was so in control. Others might have accused him of being weak for giving into his desires, or for allowing a woman to lead him. In that moment, though, he was just glad that one of them had found the nerve to take the first step—to forget everything the world had told them, to push aside fear and doubt, to let love guide them.

It is well worth the waiting, to find the one who is willing to walk that way with you.

For the one who was more than willing to walk into any adventure with him, it was the least he could do to be fearless. In a single impatient movement he yanked his shirt off over his head and threw it aside, just as she had commanded. Surprised by his willingness and surprising gracefulness, she started and pitched backward, nearly toppling out of his lap and onto the floor.

Except he would never allow her to fall and be hurt. He threw his arms around her and pulled her back to safety. Thoroughly delighted in one another, ignoring the presence of the Belt completely, they embraced once again and kissed with all the passion the Diamond had gifted them with. It no longer mattered to him where this adventure was taking them. As long as she was there with him, she could lead him wherever she wished, and he would follow her with a happy heart. She had never once led him into harm. Today, she just might lead him into joy.

Enchanted and emboldened, feeling brave enough to take the next step forward, he let himself fall back, feeling weightless. He pulled her down with him, until she fell against him; even as her small, nimble frame landed on his chest, it seemed that she, too, weighed nothing at all. They were so much closer, somehow. There was only so much standing in their way now…

She paused and pulled away from him, only to rest her cheek against his to whisper shakily in his ear.

"We lay here not too long ago," she said, shivering with nerves. "We spoke of the future, and all the things we plan to do."

"We spoke of friends, and family," he added, remembering how pleasant it had been to cuddle on the couch with the house to themselves, and thinking with a smile of how it paled in comparison to this.

"We spoke of dancing…" She held him a little closer, gripped his hair a little tighter. "You asked me to be your wife that night."

All at once, he thought he might cry, but he couldn't say exactly why. "There is no one else I would ask," he answered, reaching for her leg, just to feel the strong, solid muscles there. "There is no one else in this world I trust the way I trust you. I love you. And… You said yes!"

Thrilled by the joy in his voice, she pushed herself up to look at him and touched his face, brushing away a tear he hadn't realized had fallen. There was nothing teasing or scornful in the way she looked at him as she did so. There was only the warmth and love of a friendship that had stood strong through many perils and had grown deep, and could only grow deeper.

"Of course I said yes," she said, smiling brilliantly. "You hardly had to ask; you just insist on doing things properly. I rather admire that about you."

He moved his hand from her leg to her face, pushing her wild hair back so he could see her whole pretty face clearly. It had grown longer and wilder since they had met; he was sure she hadn't cut it once in her life. He didn't have to say out loud that he admired that about her; she seemed to just see it in his face, in the awestruck gleam of his eyes, in his very simple, gentle gesture, because the smile she gave him threatened tears of her own. She closed her eyes and let her face rest in his hand, biting her lip to keep it from trembling. She held her hand against his, pressing it closer to her own skin, as if his touch was more precious to her than gold.

Because it was. Gold meant so little to her, he remembered. He hadn't thought it possible for his heart to be filled any further, but it warmed all over again at the thought of how his love had only room in her heart for things that mattered.

Without warning, she pulled away from his touch and sat up straight. She was kneeling on top of him, her hips resting heavily against his, and gazing down at him with great purpose. Then her green eyes flicked down and wandered slowly over the Belt, carefully considering every aspect of it. He imagined that in her mind, she must be naming each gem in turn, reciting each one's home tribe, great powers, and what they symbolized in turn; and recalling every great adventure it had taken to reclaim them all. Recalling all the wonders they had accomplished since then, and all they could do in the days to come.

And then, finally, she nodded as if she had come to a decision.

"I can work around this," she said quietly, mostly to herself.

He had no time to ask or even wonder much about what she meant. The next moment, she was reaching for the hem of her shirt and pulling it up. But she was taking her time, teasing him by being as tantalizingly slow about it as she could, and it was nearly more than he could bear. He raised his hands to her waist, braced to pull her back down as soon as she had tossed her shirt aside. She began to giggle as he slid his hands up and down her sides. She was so lean and strong, he could feel each separate muscle jumping with her laughter. He couldn't remember the last time he had been so impatient for anything.

Just to infuriate him, he deliberately paused, holding her shirt just below her breasts, and batted her eyes fiendishly at him.

"…Should I?"

"Of course you should," he answered immediately, unable to believe that she could be so cruel to him.

She ducked her head and gave him a sly smile. "Are you sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure! Jasmine, please! How can you do this to me?"

Out of nowhere, something crashed heavily to the floor nearby.

"What the hell are you doing?!"

The noise brought the world painfully back into focus. Lief gasped and Jasmine shrieked in unpleasant surprise, as they looked toward the front door.

Lindal and Barda had returned, only seconds ago, not at all expecting what they had just found. So absorbed they had been in each other, Lief and Jasmine hadn't heard when the front door had opened and closed, and they hadn't heard their friends' footsteps in the hall, either. And now here they were, staring in confused disbelief at the scene unfolding in the living room. It seemed that Lindal had dropped a basket of groceries in her shock, and now a broken clay jug of milk was shattered and spilled all over the floor.

For a long, horrifying moment, all the four could do was stare in shock at each other from across the room. It felt to Lief as if it would never end. Barda's gray eyes kept flicking back and forth over his companions, as he tried desperately to wrap his head around what he was looking at. Lindal just kept her furious, incredulous gaze on Jasmine, who seemed to shrink in terror beneath it.

Regaining a bit of her sense, the younger woman suddenly found the presence of mind to yank her shirt back down over her bare stomach and clear her throat pathetically.

"You're back," she said lamely, her voice cracking in embarrassment. She had turned red enough to match the Ruby in the Belt; and Lief could tell from the burning in his own face that he looked about the same.

As he looked at her, he saw her grimace and raise her thumbs to her temples, rubbing as hard as she could. Without warning, she groaned in agony and fell away from him, curling herself into a sad little ball and pulling a cushion over her face. Apparently, between the noise and the shock, her headache had returned to punish her yet again. Alarmed, Lief jumped up and reached for her hand, trying to sooth her.

As if they weren't shocked enough, Lindal snorted harshly as her face broke into a grin, and she suddenly began to cackle uncontrollably. She laughed so hard that she slumped against the wall, and tears began streaming down her face. Barda looked away from them to pin her with a look of concern; but that moment passed quickly. While Lindal doubled over, wracked with gales of laughter, Barda turned to the wall, braced his fist against it, and began banging his head on the living room doorframe.

It was a surreal and awful moment for Lief, because there wasn't a thing he could do for any one of his friends. And he had never seen Barda look quite so done with anything in his life. He was filled at once with guilt for inspiring so much angst, but he saw no way to fix any of it.

He also felt pitiful and exposed without his shirt, but he wasn't sure where it was now. And he realized with a start that his pants were half undone, and he couldn't remember how or when that had happened. He couldn't think of a worse possible way for anyone—even friends he trusted—to find their king.

This was not at all the way he had always planned for it to go….

Struggling to pull herself together, Lindal wiped her streaming eyes on her sleeve and stalked toward the kitchen, still laughing like a fiend.

"This is the second time today I've spilled milk all over my floor," he caroled. "Ah, that sounds rather dirty right now, but it is the truth!"

Jasmine groaned again and pressed the pillow closer to her face. Clearly, being laughed at so loudly was doing nothing for her headache. Lief was just happy that she couldn't see their very frustrated guardian on the other side of the room, though he wondered if she was puzzled by the sound of the man's head hitting the wall.

Finally, Barda looked up and sighed heavily. With a tight, rueful grin, he crossed the living room and looked over the dishes on the floor. Shaking his head, he bent to pick something up from the mess and then thrust it into Lief's face.

"Put your shirt back on," he commanded, deliberately raising his voice a bit and chuckling to himself. "So, cleaning the house, were you?"

Lief had nothing to say to that. He was so embarrassed, he simply couldn't think of words to answer with. The look on his face must have been enough of an answer, because Barda laughed sharply and turned to Jasmine.

"And after all the fuss you made last night!" he grinned. "Who should be keeping her hands to herself, now?"

"Alright! Alright!" Jasmine cried, her desperate voice muffled by the pillow. "Lindal can sleep with whoever she wants! Just please lower your voice!"

Barda straightened and crossed his arms in what looked like triumph. "Thank you," he said, much more quietly than before. After a moment's thought, he bent and scooped Jasmine off the couch.

"Let's get you back into bed," he said quietly, striding away toward her borrowed bedroom. "You need actual sleep, if you plan on dancing any time soon." He stopped briefly and looked over his shoulder. "Lief, once you've got your clothes back on, help Lindal with the mess you've made."

Lief nodded quickly and pulled his shirt back over his head. Barda was being his own kind of practical, seeing problems and setting about solving them in an orderly fashion. But his tone of voice made it clear that they were to have another very personal conversation later. As he pulled his shirt back into place, Lindal came back into the room with a towel in her hand, still laughing to herself.

"Oh, I see how you are, you old bear," she called after Barda as he disappeared around the corner. "Mind you, our beloved monarch can only clean the house as far as picking up his own dishes. I expect proper compensation for anything else."

"Leave me out of this," Lief complained, kneeling to pick up the plate and cups on the floor. "I didn't even do anything."

"Indeed!" Lindal agreed, throwing the towel down on the puddle of milk and nudging it around with her foot. "I daresay, if we had known what the two of you were up to, we might have returned earlier and stopped you. Besides, the future queen should be dozing, not dancing—not that you would know from experience, I understand."

Lief suppressed a groan of his own. It was annoying to be teased when none of this had even been his idea, but everything Lindal said was right, of course. And, if he was honest, it was suddenly difficult to look her in the eye. She was still a dear and dependable ally, and he respected her greatly; but knowing that she had taken his lifelong guardian to bed, and almost certainly planned to do so again, was very strange.

It was difficult to picture Barda behaving this way with anyone. He hadn't been sure how he was to face the woman who had inspired that change, and had been glad that he hadn't needed to all day. Lief had grappled with his own feelings of anger, and even loathing in the night, though he certainly hadn't mentioned it to Barda. He had mentioned it to Jasmine, though he was sure that she didn't remember it now. In those first moments of shock, it had felt like a bitter betrayal of trust. It had felt like an invasion, as if someone was trying to steal something precious from him.

But now, as he rose to carry the dirty dishes into the kitchen, it dawned on him that he now understood that change perfectly well, and he could hardly blame his older friends for their actions. It would be cruel and hypocritical of him to go on feeling so wronged, when Barda probably felt wronged in the same way.

"I'm sorry about the mess—the real, actual mess," he said awkwardly to Lindal, gesturing to the pile of dishes in his hand. "I'll come help you pick up the rest of this in a minute."

"Oh, take your time," she said carelessly, still nudging the towel around. "And bring the broom when you come back."

Lief glanced over the spilled groceries, and his stomach growled out of a newly acquired instinct. He saw a round loaf of crusty bread, plump turnips with leafy tops, and a parcel wrapped in brown paper and twine which smelled like smoked bacon, among other things. The goods stood glorious testament to how quickly the land around Broome had bounced back from the Sister of the East's song of despair.

Jasmine had been right, too. All of Deltora deserved to be rid of this plague. He suddenly felt a terrible stab of guilt for staying in Broome for so long, and wished with all his heart that it was possible to leave right that minute.

"Lindal," he said slowly, "I know I can't really ask you for anything, after what just happened—"

She interrupted him with a snort and grinned at him, folding her arms seriously. "Lief, you are the king. Ask away. Your wish is my command."

She was just being herself, serious in the most casual way. Lief felt like he was imposing on her good graces, but she clearly didn't feel that she was being imposed upon. It was an enormous relief.

"It's not a big favor, but… Well, we've been here for a week, now, and we need to think of continuing our quest soon. Very soon. In the next two or three days, perhaps. But Kree isn't well enough yet to carry a message to Doom, and we don't expect him to send another bird before we go. If I wrote him a note, would you hold onto it for us until a bird does show up?"

Nothing changed about Lindal's friendly face; but in a split second, something flashed in her eyes and vanished before Lief could tell what it was.

"Oh, is that all?" she asked lightly. "Of course I can keep a coded note safe from prying eyes. No doubt, the next blasted bird will arrive only a few days after you leave, and come directly to this house. Doom will be in for an unpleasant surprise, but I suppose there's no helping it. I had wondered, myself, at how long you've stayed."

"It was a happy accident. I just wanted to see for myself that all was well here, now that the Sister is destroyed and the dragon has woken. I was waiting for another shoe to drop; I couldn't quite believe that everything was so remarkably fine so soon afterward. And then…. I guess we all just got wrapped up in this city. Broome is a wonderful place, and you have been such a good friend. It's been hard to think of moving on, and so we haven't."

"Well, I certainly appreciate the sentiment." Lindal raised her hand to thoughtfully fiddle with one of her earrings. "I am not used to having so much company, let alone for so long, but I've enjoyed having the three of you. It's been... Quite an experience."

"Yeah, I know…"

There was an awkward pause. Unwilling to draw it out, Lief cleared his throat and turned back toward the kitchen.

"I'll be right back with the broom," he said over his shoulder. Lindal had already returned her attention to the puddle of milk, and answered with a curt nod of her head and a vague humming noise. She was being as normal as she could, but it seemed that she suddenly had a lot on her mind.

I suppose it isn't too hard to guess at…

Unable to do or say much about it, he pushed the thought from his mind. The less he thought about staying and the more he thought about leaving, the better they would all be.


The middle of the eighth day found all four of them feeling much better and far less uncomfortable around each other. It also found Lindal and Barda back in the kitchen, preparing lunch, because it had been agreed that everyone needed to share a meal. They hadn't done so in days; it would be healthy for them to do so now, they had decided, and Lindal's cold box was filling up with leftovers that needed to be eaten soon.

And so there was a pan of breakfast casserole reheating in the oven, and a pot of turnip stew from the previous night on the stove. Lindal was slicing bread, and Barda was picking the remaining half of a roasted chicken. They were also boiling eggs, and planned to use the leafy tops of last night's turnips for a salad. It was to be a bountiful and creative feast, which Barda was looking forward to more than any meal the palace could produce.

"I don't think I had ever thought of mixing turnips and bacon," he commented, impatiently eyeing the fragrant, bubbling stew.

"The turnip is the unsung hero of root vegetables," Lindal answered proudly. "I had been hoping for beets, myself, but they seem to be taking their time. I'd give them another week or two. Besides, it's hard to make soup out of them—they get mushy and gross, and the color isn't so great, either."

"What will you do with them when they are ready, then?"

"Roast them and eat them whole, probably. Have you ever tried salt-roasting beets?"

"I can't say I have."

"You pack them in salt, and leave them in the oven for an hour or so. You have to wait until they've cooled a bit, but the peel comes off like butter. They turn out beautifully, though it is a regrettable waste of salt. It's best to do in large batches. I'll treat you to it sometime, so you had better come back alive and whole from your precious quest."

"I'll do what I can. You know how unpredictable quests can be."

She hummed to herself, seeming unable to respond to that. Then she shook her head as if to clear it, and shot him a grin.

"How is that bird coming along?"

"Nearly done. We'll add most of it to the stew at the last minute, but I've saved the best parts for ourselves."

He nodded to a small plate where he had set aside the two or three secretly choice parts of the chicken. Lindal's eyes lit up in hungry approval at the sight of the spade-shaped tail and the two tender, juicy oysters from the small of the bird's back.

"You know your way around a chicken," she noted, taking one of the oysters and popping it into her mouth.

"My mother made sure of it. One evening I came in from training absolutely famished, because I hadn't eaten all day. So she handed me a chicken carcass with all the obvious parts removed, and very wisely told me to make the best of it because it was all we had left at the moment. Desperation is the mother of all the best discoveries, I've found. I discovered parts of a chicken I didn't even knew existed, that evening."

"Did you find the all-elusive nugget?"

"No, but it was how I found the joys of the tail meat," he answered, picking up the small, unlikely chunk of meat. "And I quickly found a way to hoard it all to myself."

"Oh really?" Lindal asked, her face alight with interest. "Share this knowledge with me."

Barda leaned forward and lowered his voice, as if imparting a great secret. "By calling it… Things."

On perfect queue, Lief suddenly appeared in the doorway and looked around the kitchen, hoping that lunch was ready. "Hey, what's that?" he asked.

"Chicken butt," Barda answered right away, his face completely straight.

Fully uninterested, Lief turned and walked away very quickly.

"Impressive," Lindal agreed. "It really works!"

"Shh, cooks' secret," he said, offering her the whole tail. "It works every time."

"You would think they would catch on, watching you always eat the supposedly crummy parts while they have the supposedly real parts."

"Well, they think it's a great sacrifice I make for them. A well placed 'I hope you appreciate the things I do for you' never hurts, either," he said, teasingly shaking his fist for emphasis.

"What an excellent parent you will make one day," she commented, again popping the whole chunk into her mouth. She leaned close and gave him a kiss, which he thought at first was just a gesture of thanks.

Except he suddenly found the tail pressed into his own mouth, and that it tasted all the sweeter.

"What a devilish lynx you are right now," he teased with his mouth full.

"I hope you appreciate the things I do for you, you old bear" she teased back. Leaving him a sly smile, she picked up her knife and returned to the loaf she had been slicing.

Barda normally would have eaten his favorite treat slowly, savoring and enjoying it for as long as he could; but this time he chewed and swallowed quickly. There was something he simply had to say right this instant, and refused to put it off any longer. Before Lindal could make much progress, he gripped her knife hand, forcing her to stop and look at him, her face slightly puzzled.

"Lindal, I love you."

She blinked at him, the look of puzzlement replaced at once by stunned wonder.

"I know you must know it by now, but it isn't the same as saying it out loud. It's been weighing on me, and… It is the truth. I love you, and it's time I started saying so regularly."

Her face became absolutely joyous. She even had to blink back a tear or two. She had really been waiting for this. She had really needed to hear it days ago.

"Wipe your hands, so I can give you a hug."

He did as she asked right away, while she brushed her own hands on her leggings without caring. Then she launched herself into his arms before he was quite ready, burying her face affectionately in his shoulder.

"I love you, too."

As he pulled her close, Barda realized just how badly he had needed to hear that, himself. The last time anyone had had said out loud that they loved him, it had been his mother, seeing him out the door for a day that had ended in disaster. It had been the last thing she had said to him; and it often pained him as much as it brought him comfort.

He knew he had friends who loved him, but none of them had ever told him so. They all simply knew that he was aware of it, and they all knew better than to use such strong, emotional words around him. And certainly, no one had ever loved him in this way.

Now that someone had dared to utter those powerful, beautiful words to his face, he found a void he had never noticed being filled to overflowing. Somehow, those words made him feel strong, and oddly safe. He was so outstandingly happy, he felt tears prickling his eyes.

"Hey, are we still eating, or…?"

This time it was Jasmine peering into the kitchen, one eyebrow raised at the scene she had found. Annoyed to have had such a tender moment disrupted so rudely, Lindal straightened herself and reached once again for her bread knife.

"Half a moment, your majesty," the woman said with pretend tightness as she turned back to the loaf on the counter. "Another twenty minutes—that's all we ask, and all things considered, it isn't much."

Jasmine shrugged, and turned away. "Leave some bread untoasted for me, please. I've had my fill of toast for the time being…"

As they resumed their work in happy silence, Lindal glanced sideways at Barda and gave him a mischievous smile.

"So, you thought last night was something, did you?"

"The most fun I've had in my life," he agreed with a mischievous smile of his own.

She nodded with great satisfaction. "Well then, my bear, you are in for a real treat tonight…"


For the first time, all four companions walked to the city's great hall together, determined to finally dance as a company. Lief and Jasmine were especially excited about this; because she had been ill, they had decided against going the previous night, and they had grown to be quite fond of the city's great dances. And they had been in Broome for eight days, but still hadn't seen their guardian dancing, yet—and they understood that he had he had grown quite good at it, himself.

Still, they were both unable to really believe it, since they had only heard of it and never actually seen it. The last time they had seen Barda dancing, he had been decidedly terrible. It was hard to imagine that he could have become such an expert in just a week, even if he had spent four whole days practicing tirelessly.

"The two of you are in for the shock of your young lives, then," he informed them proudly as they travelled to the city's heart. "The rumors are all true. I, too, could dance at any time, in any place, in any weather, like anyone else in Broome. And I have only my rather excellent teacher to thank for it."

He teasingly nudged Lindal, who teasingly nudged him back with a grateful chuckle. She was in another dress he once wouldn't have believed she owned, this one dyed deep red with splashes of sky blue, with a similarly blue shawl covering her bare head and shoulders. It wasn't nearly as extravagant as what she had surprised him with at that first dance, but she was just as elegant and beautiful as she had been that night. And it was plain that she had chosen this dress to match the turquoise earrings he had bought for her, which pleased him enormously.

She was bold and beautiful enough to be walking on the arm of any man she liked, but she was walking on his. That also pleased him enormously.

"Aren't you cold, Lindal?" Jasmine asked, genuinely curious, as she pulled her usual jacket a little closer against the chilly night.

"Oh, you know how the great hall is during a dance," the giant woman answered casually. "With all the lights and all the warm bodies, the dances are always sweltering. The shawl more than suffices for the short walk there, but I will be glad to be rid of it soon. The dancing will keep me warm."

Also, she hadn't added, this particular dress would be easy to slip out of later, when another dance would keep her warm. Barda knew this, too, but wisely didn't show a sign of it on his face.

They arrived just as a dance was beginning. The hall was already full of spinning, laughing people, most of them singing along with the merry band as they danced. Lief and Jasmine immediately went to stand aside, content to watch and clap to the beat until the next dance began. They must have thought it rude, with their Del-ish manners, to jump into the dance and ruin everyone else's timing.

Lindal knew better than they did that this was hardly rude at all. By now, Barda had forgotten those finer feelings, himself. Knowing exactly when they would be able to step into the throng, they grinned at each other and he offered her his hand.

"Shall we dance, my lynx?"

"I should like nothing more, my bear."

Without another word, she took his hand and he expertly spun with her into the circle of dancers, leaving their young friends behind. Barda only wished that he could have looked over his shoulder to see their faces; he imagined they must be stunned to see him now. However, he had eyes only for Lindal, and his mind was fixed on his steps.

The dance ended with a crash of cymbals, many long, happy minutes later. When the smiling couple returned to look for Lief and Jasmine, they found the two looking positively delighted.

"You really have gotten good at this," Lief had to admit, sounding impressed.

"You didn't trip or stumble once," Jasmine added with a laugh.

"Of course he hasn't," Lindal retorted, grinning ear to ear, very pleased with herself. She glanced over her shoulder as the mass of dancers began reforming. The next song was being announced, and everyone instinctively took their proper places. Unwilling to waste any time or see the young ones left out of another dance, she herded them to the floor.

"Have you made it to the center yet?" she asked them over the din.

"We almost did, a few nights ago," Lief answered, his face flushed with excitement. "We were only two places away that time, the closest we've come yet."

"And the prize for that dance was a good one, too—the day's best catch from the harbor. Lindal, you should have seen that fish! It was half as big as I am! The man who caught it said he hasn't seen a fish so big in years. It was wonderful in every way!"

Lindal laughed softly at their excitement, as they all took their places.

"Perhaps tonight is your lucky night, then," she suggested. And that was all she had time to say, for the band struck up again, and they were off.

It was unclear whether that had just been a fortunate guess, or if Lindal had an honest sixth sense; but in either case, her prediction soon came true. As the fifth dance clashed to an end and everyone looked to see who had made it to the center of the floor, the whole hall erupted in cheers and whistling and thunderous applause, to see the king of Deltora standing there with the wild girl they all knew he loved.

Lindal and Barda had ended up not very far away, and were able to see the whole thing clearly. Lief and Jasmine were still for a moment, as it dawned on them that they were the reason for the commotion. Their faces quickly changed from confusion to joy. She threw herself at once into his arms, and he lifted her off her feet to spin her around. As he set her back down, he even dared to plant a kiss on her forehead.

It was only a small victory, compared to the many battles they had won in the past, and all that would happen in the days to come. But then, life's greatest triumphs usually are the small ones.

Lindal and Barda continued watching contentedly as the city officials came bustling forward to present their prize, babbling apologies all the way that it really wasn't a suitable gift for the king. And of course Lief waved all their apologies away, insisting that whatever gift they had intended for their own people was more than good enough for him. So the officials very meekly presented him with a large bottle of brandy, fresh from the city's finest brewery. Lief accepted the gift with great thanks, though he obviously didn't plan to let Jasmine near it. She needn't have worried, though; another official had come prepared with a large arrangement of brightly colored winter roses—a lovely gift for the future queen. Even though she preferred seeing flowers alive and blooming in the wild, rather than tamed and cut and arranged to suit human hands, she was clearly thrilled.

"Still," begged the head official, "it seems a small thing in comparison to all you have done for us. Please, my king, ask us for whatever you desire. We will grant it at once!"

Lief smiled down at Jasmine, who had slipped her arm into his. In that moment, he had the only thing he desired. There was nothing he wanted in all the world that the city officials could possibly give him. Instead, he looked up and flashed his smile over the whole crowd.

"How about another dance with friends?" he suggested loudly, earning another round of riotous applause.

"After we've had a minute to put our prizes down, of course," Jasmine cut in quickly, as soon as she could be heard again, sending a ripple of laughter through the crowd. She was a practical woman, as well as wild. The people of Broome obviously appreciated that about her.

The officials bowed graciously and announced a short intermission, advising all the guests to also stow their prizes safely, have a drink, or do whatever else suited them. The four friends took advantage of that short opportunity to reunite and share a laugh over what had happened.

"That's quite a pair of prizes," Barda commented. "You aren't so bad at this, yourselves."

Jasmine hummed to herself and glanced toward the bottle in Lief's other arm. "I wonder if that stuff is any good…?"

"Of course it is," Lindal said indignantly, snatching the bottle away before the younger woman could wonder much more. "This stuff, as you call it, rather high quality, and very expensive. There's no way I'm letting you chug this whole bottle down by yourself."

Embarrassed, and probably wishing that Lindal would lower her voice a bit, Jasmine let her green eyes drift toward a corner. Seeing her mistake—and an opportunity—Lindal shoved the bottle into Barda's empty hands, and took Jasmine's roses gently in her own.

"The two of us will get these things safely home," she said decidedly, her mind already made up. "You have better things to be doing right now than guarding these lovely gifts. Stay a while longer, and enjoy the dancing. We ought to be getting home, ourselves."

Lief and Jasmine regarded them without comment, already having a pretty good idea of what they planned to do when they got back. Lief stuffed his hands awkwardly into his pockets and cleared his throat nervously.

"Perhaps we will take a walk after the dance," he said, mostly to Jasmine. She quickly nodded in agreement.

"That sounds nice. The city is just as beautiful by night as it is by day, I've noticed. Who knows what we may find?"

They were silently, generously putting themselves out of the way, because they didn't want to repeat yesterday's adventure by coming home at an unfortunate moment. Barda had a great idea, if that was their aim.

"You should take a stroll up the highest hill, and see what's at the top," he told them. "And be sure to read the plaque on the cabin there. You'll find it most interesting, I think."

The curious spark in their eyes was a sure sign that they were going to do as he said. The four exchanged farewells, reminded one another to keep safe and stay out of trouble, and then went their separate ways for the night.

"That journey to the hill should keep them out of our hair for an hour, at least," Barda commented happily, trying to look more closely at the bottle of brandy, but failing because it was so dark outside.

"Do you think it wise to send them off alone at night?" Lindal asked as she pulled her shawl back over her head. "Heaven only knows what they will do up there."

"Then that is their business, not mine. I have more important things to think of, presently."

Lindal straightened herself, making herself as tall as possible, as the knowledge that she was that more important thing filled her pride to bursting.

Their return to Lindal's house began casually, and as Barda had half-expected. She went immediately into the kitchen and uncorked the bottle of brandy, and then took a pair of small glasses from a shelf.

"I doubt they will mind us sampling their present," she said carelessly, as she filled the glasses. "I should think they are as tired of this stuff as they are of toast and tea, by now."

"To the things we never get tired of, then," he agreed, clinking his glass against hers, and draining the shot in one gulp, as she did. The taste of berries and herbs was exquisite, and he was impressed at once.

"I've never tasted finer."

"You're welcome," she smiled, pouring another round which vanished just as quickly. "How about one more?"

Barda shook his head. He was already beginning to feel excellent, and that this was a good stopping place. He was sure he needed no more to enjoy what was just ahead. Lindal shrugged, and poured one more shot for herself.

The time it took her to pour that shot, drain it, and set the glass down was only seconds; but it felt like an annoyingly long time to Barda, as he impatiently waited on her. As soon as her hands were free, he gripped her shoulders and pushed her against the counter—against the sink, he noticed ruefully. All he had wanted all night was to kiss her and kiss her with all his might, and now he was tired of waiting. He would have pulled her dress of at once, too, if they hadn't been standing in front of a window.

Lindal seemed not to care about that, as she returned his mighty kisses and wrapped her arms around him. Her hands were already under his shirt, slowly easing it out of the way as she felt higher and higher up his back and sides. Just to annoy her for making him wait before, he halted her progress just as it was nearly complete by sweeping her into his arms and carrying her out of the kitchen.

He had taken to doing this, it seemed, and Lindal had confessed that she loved it. She said it made her feel like a princess, freshly rescued from a monster by a brave and handsome hero. He had to agree that it made him feel like that hero, like a great man filled with triumph and purpose. She had also laughed that it was more than fitting, after what had happened at Dragon's Nest—and that if the old fairy stories were to be believed, they had been perfectly destined for one another all along.

That was a truly inspiring and comforting thought.

She was giggling uncontrollably to be back in one of her new favorite spots, but was rudely interrupted by a loud, indignant squawk from somewhere nearby. Kree was in his own usual spot, perched on the back of the sofa, observing them warily. Perhaps even wearily. Filli was there, too, regarding them with curiosity, as if to ask if they were going to do that loud thing that got them in so much trouble.

"Fine, we'll try to keep it down," Barda snapped at them as he went on his way, making no promises whatever.

Of course, it was impossible to keep quiet. Whenever they lay together, Barda felt very much like a bear—a loud, wild creature who did as he pleased, without a care for human customs. There was a strange freedom he found whenever he was in Lindal's bed, to be whoever he wished to be while still being himself. That was a good thing, because she insisted often that she adored him just as he was.

And it was wonderful how their progress by night reflected their progress by day. That first night had been much like the first day they had danced—confusing and awkward, painfully embarrassing, even just painful. But they had pressed forward, been diligent and patient with one another, and their practicing had brought them great happiness.

And so they had changed together, in so many ways. Gasps of empty frustration had quickly changed to whispered instructions, and then to passionate agreements. And now, thanks to all their practice, they were howling with pleasure as loudly as they had laughed at the great hall, not an hour earlier. It had become the most natural and beautiful thing in the world. It was more natural than actual dancing. It was even more natural than holding a sword or spear.

They felt like love—like a woman who could be loved, and a man who could love at all. It was something they had both feared having to live a lifetime without knowing. Finding it in one another meant more than they could ever possibly explain to anyone.

It seemed that each time they made love became the new best moment of his life, each time bringing him closer to her, and bringing them more joy than the last. So he lay still at last, taking deep breaths of cool night air, holding her warm, bare, trembling body close to his own, wondering how anything could possibly be better than it was, or that they could possibly grow any closer than they were right now. As he tucked her head into his shoulder and kissed her forehead, he marveled at the very idea that it was more than possible. Everything was perfectly perfect.

But that still, lovely moment was shattered as, all at once, he felt drops of warm wetness on his chest. Startled, he looked down into her face to find her in tears. He took her face in his hand, trying in vain to dry her drenched face.

"Lindal, what on earth is wrong?" he asked, genuinely terrified that he had hurt her—that he had spent those long minutes in blissful satisfaction, when he had witlessly caused her nothing but pain. For a terribly long moment, she could only stare wordlessly back at him as the tears continued to fall silently, and her whole large form continued to shake in his arms.

He saw at last, only too clearly, that she hadn't been shaking from exhaustion, or even pain. There was nothing but wild, desperate fear in her face. When she finally found her voice, it was in the form of choking sobs that broke his heart over and over again.

"Barda… Don't leave me… Please don't leave me… You can't leave me!"

It was horrifying to find there was nothing he could do except hold her closer and whisper soothingly in a futile attempt to calm her, while she continued to cry into his shoulder, without promising her anything. He wished with all his heart that he could promise what she wanted so badly; but he knew that it was impossible. And he knew that deep in her heart, beyond the hopes and desires and dreams there, she knew it just as keenly.

And now the knowledge that his time in Broome was almost done was tearing at both their hearts.

"Oh, Lindal…"

"I can't live like this anymore," she sobbed, holding him as if she were clinging to life itself. "I don't want to be alone anymore. And if you go, you will never come back."

"Of course I will," he insisted. "I will always come back to you."

She gasped sharply, as if a wonderful idea had occurred to her. She starred up at him with a fiery, renewed hope in her glassy eyes.

"Forget the quest," she demanded. "Forget it! Leave it behind, and stay here with me!"

There was nothing more in that instant he wanted than to agree. He would have given anything to forsake the quest—it wasn't as if he had pledged himself to it, after all. He had simply been swept up into it, as he had always been swept into Lief's great quests. Leaving it behind, for the sake of the only woman he had ever loved, for the only happiness he had ever known, should have been the easiest thing in the world. But it seemed like the hardest decision he had ever faced….

Until he realized, in his heart of hearts, that there was no choice at all. If he ever hoped to make a proper life with his lovely lynx, or to make a family with her, it would have to be in a land from which the Shadow Lord was permanently banished. And that day would only come when he had seen it with his own eyes. He could never rest until he knew for himself that their land was safe from the Enemy; and until that day, the family they had begun to dream of could never be truly safe.

How bitter it was to face. How tempting it was to have to choose. On one hand, there was Lindal—and freedom and happiness, for however long it took for the quest to fall apart without him. On the other hand, there was the quest itself—and the forever freedom and happiness that awaited everyone with its completion.

Really, there was no choice at all. He forced himself to shake his head sadly.

"You know that I can't do that. I can't just leave the quest behind," he said as gently as he could, tenderly rubbing his thumb across her cheek, hoping that he could convey his complicated meaning with that simple gesture.

Clearly, his meaning was lost on her. Her expression became puzzled, and then very dark.

"You said you loved me," she growled, a fresh spring of tears gathering in her eyes. "Was all of that a lie?"

"What? Most certainly not!"

"Then abandon the quest and stay with me."

"Lindal, you know that I can't do that."

Somehow, her expression darkened further still. Barda could have sworn that her glare melted his very bones. Suddenly, he would have rather been facing the false Ruby dragon.

"Then you are a liar," she hissed, her face twisting in agony as she tore herself from his arms.

Before he quite he knew what was happening, she was leaping from her bed and making her way toward the door, even though she was wearing nothing but her own skin and weeping as freely as an open wound.

Without thinking much more about it, Barda also jumped out of bed and caught her by the arm, just managing to reach her before she escaped. She struggled against him for a brief moment, furious and humiliated, and clearly not in her normal mind; but somehow, in her deep sadness and terror, she was powerless against him. Once again, he was holding her close, as safely as he could, as if he could somehow make up for all the time that would pass when he did inevitably leave the happy city, in that one embrace.

"Lindal, please," he begged, holding her nearly against her will, "you know that I would leave the quest behind if I could. If it meant anything less than freedom for us all, I would do it in a heartbeat. I would do anything to remain here, with you, and that is why I must continue. It is for you—for us—for the family I hope we will be. By all the powers, I will not allow the Enemy to cloud our future, and I will see to that with my own eyes. Can you not see that you are the reason I must go? You are the whole reason I still have hope that the quest will succeed! What other reason do I have, but you?"

Lindal offered no answer. All she seemed capable of in that moment was to go on weeping, in abject despair. It was unclear if she had even heard anything he had said. Barda had come to believe recently that she could be feminine in many ways; but he had never braced himself for fear or tears, or hysteria quite like this.

Everyone has their limits, he supposed. And he had harbored a sinking feeling for days that Lindal had been growing more and more upset over something. He had wondered secretly about it, but had allowed her that space for the sake of her vanity. Now, after all they had shared and the painful end looming nearer and nearer every second, the growing terror she had been hiding from him had overwhelmed and overpowered her.

And now she was shaking with nerves and fear in his arms, barely able to hold herself up on her own. Somehow, she was paralyzed, even crippled by the thought of letting him go.

He realized that in this odd, painful moment, he had to be the bigger person. He had to protect her and keep her safe, as the husband he wanted to be would do. And he refused to be an addiction—a mere thing she relied on to be normal. More than any other enemy they had, he saw that he had to protect her from herself.

The problem being, he had no clue where to begin at that. Is training had taught him primarily how to punch his problems in the face, but had been unhelpfully vague on helping people in actual distress. In the midst of all the turmoil he was facing, he made a mental note to design a course on talking to women for future squires in the royal guard. This kind of ineptitude was absolutely unacceptable, and he wondered how his predecessors had gotten by in the past this way.

His first instinct was to guide her gently back into bed, and pull the patterned blanket safely around her. There was little he could really do to convince her that all would be well, when he had no idea of it himself. But for the moment, they were together. Even if she was experiencing a moment of weakness, he was still strong, and could be strong enough to carry them both to safety.

Slowly, slowly, her anguished sobbing quieted into an occasional sniffle or hiccup. She really could have been a small child in need of comfort and care, the way she looked. It was hard to imagine that anything could have rattled her so badly; but the one thing that had was him, and it hurt him a bit. He was hardly looking forward to parting ways, but he was at least trying to see the hope at the end of the road. He had spoken before with all the hope and promise that he could find in his proud, manly heart. How could she still not see it?

In the end, he was somewhat dismayed to find that Lindal had cried herself to sleep, still clinging to him as if he were a dream that might slip through her fingers. It was hardly the way he had expected her to fall asleep, when the night had been so pleasant before. And after all that had just happened, he found himself lying beside her, wide awake, for a long time afterward. There was so much on his mind now, sleep seemed impossible.

But sleep, he did, deep and hard. Luckily, it was a sleep with no dreams.


Author's Notes….


Well, THAT only took a month and 2 vodka sodas… Somehow, vodka makes me a fantastic typist. So, if this last passage seems out of place somehow, this is probably the reason. It certainly seems out of place to me; my usual narrative voice is noticeably different, I think. Also, a lot of sentences are longer than I would usually make them; but they are well-structured and make total sense, so I'm not changing them.

Everything Barda has to say about chicken is from my own experience over the years. They don't just hand you a culinary degree for being stupid, you know. ;D (Also, Lindal's turnip soup is a recipe I am creating myself. If it goes well, I will share it.) (Also-also, salt roasted beets are the best, and I recommend trying it out. It will redefine how you think of beets.)

I have also noticed that I made the mistake in a previous chapter of mentioning the Sister of the West, rather than the East, like I had intended. I've looked carefully in this update, and I'm pretty sure I haven't repeated this error. Even so, let me know if you see this mistake somewhere, so I can fix. :D

As this chapter concludes day 8, the next one will wrap up days 9 and 10—which means drama and angst, and a certain very helpful Ruby dragon scaring Lindal to death. And then…. I'm still deciding whether I will time-jump to Sister of the South and throw Lindal and Barda back together, or of that will be a whole separate thing of its own. I just know that since What Happens in Broome has been such a successful concept, I'd like to continue it. I just can't decide on the format, because I am a vain, fickle woman.

I've gone back and forth on this for weeks. On the one hand, I'm ready for this to be OVER, and to not have to worry over updating while I put the next chapter of my real life in order. On the other hand, I really don't know if this fic wants to be done yet. And yes, I let my fics tell me what to do. We have a love-hate relationship sometimes…. Whatever. The point is, I will have made a final decision in what I like to pretend will be the next few days, but will almost certainly be the next few weeks.

In the meantime, it's almost April, which means only ONE thing: changing the age on my profile to the next highest number, and wondering if it is socially acceptable to still be running around here at that age, and deciding to screw what society deems acceptable cuz I am an adult. (Read: my birthday is this month!)

Bah. No more rambling. Only posting. 8D