No. Way. This is the last chapter of Dragon Queen! How'd it happen? 8D

It's interesting to think of how this story's purpose has evolved, since I began filling my own notebooks with ideas and finally sat down to write. It started out as a creative outlet for myself, a grand adventure story that I never planned to actually write down, but was fun to imagine. Then it was a project for my brother, who was understandably disappointed with where Rowan and the Ice Creepers left off, and wanted a continuation. Now, at the end of this first part of the tale, I like to think of Star's Journey as a means of uniting the far-flung, disjointed lands of this world.

And the ultimate goal involves Titans, Dragons, and the Shadow Lord in a final showdown to determine the fate of this world. Yes, it involves Rowan, Lief, and Rye being in rooms together, gawking at the long list of oddly specific things they have in common. It also explains the Ols, the Ak-Baba, Theagan, and many other things we have wondered about the Shadow Lord.

All because Star went on an adventure. ;D

If there is one thing the Deltora Quest community on loves to go on and on about, it's how Emily Rodda is somehow able to broach hard topics in a way that children can carry with them, and remember and appreciate into adulthood. Where else can you find slavery, racial prejudice, war, blatant murder, international conspiracies, clan wars, gang violence, bi-racial marriages, and people being eaten alive by horrible monsters, being written for kids? Think about that. Skim over Rowan, Deltora Quest, and Three Doors, and you will find it all and more, over and over again. I like to think that through Star's Journey, I am carrying on that tradition, in my own way. I also like to think that through the longer chapters and higher reading level, I can appeal to youngsters who are reading Rodda's works for the first time, as well as veteran fans who have always wondered what happened next.

Thus, I would like to weirdly thank ISIS for much of the inspiration for what is to come.

Anyway, let's wrap this thing up, shall we?

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Chapter 17: Looking Ahead

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The neighborhood Zan led them into was in much better shape than what they had been traveling through. Rows of townhouses stood neatly packed together, with narrow alleyways separating them. Many of them served double duty, as shops on the ground floor and homes on the second. Looking up toward the flat roofs, they could see laundry hanging to dry, and the green of potted gardens.

For all that they were all silently enslaved to the Dragon Queen, the people of Zan's neighborhood seemed to be living busy, normal, even comfortable lives in their cleverly built homes. The streets were far less crowded, and many of the people had stopped to have simple conversations on the side walk, or in open doorways. Most of them were smiling; those who weren't were just concentrating on their work, or wherever they were headed. Almost all of them spared a moment to wave at Zan, used to seeing him. They stared in curiosity at the fisher folk with him, wondering who they were, but no one bothered to ask him who they were. Their sudden appearance was probably the most interesting thing that would happen to them today.

Zan had quickened his step, anxious to finally reach his house. Star wondered which one was his; they were all built exactly the same. The only differences were pops of color from painted windows, a hedge here or there, and the occasional sign for a shop hanging over doorways.

Finally, Zan halted them at the door of an ordinary-looking house. There was no shop sign, and no paint around the window sills. The only thing that set it apart was a symbol branded over the front door. It was the blackened shape of a grach with its wings spread wide, signifying to all that people of Central Control lived there. For all its simplicity, it seemed to make the house stand out more loudly than all the rest.

Zan bent to pick a stone from the ground, and then tossed it up at the second floor window. It hit the glass with a smack, and then fell to the ground with another smack. Then there was silence for a moment, until the window opened. A plainly dressed young man, many years older than Zan, stuck his head and shoulders out to look down at the street.

For the first time, Zan grinned a true, brilliant smile. His whole self suddenly lit up, like a candle coming to life in the dark.

"Zamiel!" he cried out, with great joy in his voice.

Above them, the man's jaw dropped in astonishment, and his eyes went wide.

"Stay there," he called back, stammering in excitement. "Stay right there, I'm coming down. I'll be right down, just stay right where you are!"

He vanished back into the house, leaving the window open in haste. And so they could hear the man rushing around, and several voices exclaiming in surprise. Another face appeared in the window right away, also overcome with shock and joy.

"Zan!" the newcomer exclaimed, and then twisted to look over his shoulder. "Everyone, it's Zan! Come and see! Zan is back!"

Several people crowded into the window to look. There were men and women, of many heights and shapes, all of their marked faces alight with relief and gladness. All of them were shouting to him in amazement, babbling of worry and grief and happiness.

Zared Azan hadn't cared at all for Zan; but he was clearly very dear to all of these people. He had only spoken of his brothers so far, but perhaps the men and women crowding the small window were more of his family. And as he waved back at them and shouted to promise that he was alright, his violet eyes were shining. He really was home; and it wasn't a bad thing, after all.

In no time at all, his eldest brother all but exploded out the front door and snatched him into a fierce, inescapable embrace.

"Thank the stars you're alright," he said in a shaking voice. "I thought I had lost you. I can't believe I left you behind! Zan, I'm so, so sorry."

"I know you are," Zan answered quietly, happy to just let his brother hold him as close as he could. "And I am alright, really."

Zamiel gripped his shoulders and stood back a bit to pin him with a look of wonder. "But how is it even possible?" he asked. "How on earth did you manage to escape?"

Zan became grave again, and glanced over his shoulder at his companions. Star and Forley had both let their hearts be warmed by this beautiful moment of reunion; but there was still much to explain, and they all knew it. Zan looked back his brother and lowered his voice.

"Into the alley," he said, pulling himself away from his brother. He reached for Unos and led her into the shadow beside the house. "I will explain everything, I promise. But you'll never believe it, even when you see it."

Zamiel was surprised by how secretive Zan had become, and looked for the first time at Star and Forley. They both smiled at him faintly, unsure how else to greet him, and suddenly sorry for being in the way. He stared hard at Star for a long moment, and went on staring at her as he slowly followed his little brother.

He recognizes me, like Zan did, she realized, as she and Forley trailed behind the brothers. He knows he has seen my face before, because he has seen papa before. His face may even haunt this man's dreams, if the mission upset him as much as Zan claims. We do look almost exactly alike, and it has puzzled other people just as badly in the past.

Ahead of them, Zan was opening a side door to the house and impatiently trying to haul Unos through it. The grach was resisting him, hissing in displeasure and swaying her head back and forth in concern. Star started forward to help him.

"Let me do it," she insisted, brushing Zan aside. As he rolled his eyes and stepped through the door, Star began stroking her friend's long, scaly neck, hushing her gently.

"It's alright," she crooned. "What is all this? Of course it's safe to go in."

As soon as she had spoken, Zan shouted in alarm and was knocked to the floor. An enormous, bulky grach stood over him, chattering loudly as it nuzzled him all over. All of the beast's spines were raised in great feeling, making it look even bigger. To Star's surprise, Zan began to laugh.

"Dolosus, you old rock," he scolded, pushing the scaly head away so he could sit up. Then he took that head in his hands and began scratching behind the creature's spines. "Have you missed me, boy? I've missed you, too."

Dolosus hissed in pleasure, and settled down a bit. He went on fidgeting, though, happy to see his favorite again after missing him for so long. And Zan was happy to see him, too. All at once, he reminded Star very much of her father. She couldn't help smiling and laughing lightly at the sight of them. Behind her, Zamiel and Forley were also moved by the scene; Alanis and Lead were cautiously peeking out of the wagon to see what was going on, and were probably shocked to see Zan so happy.

It was such a wonderful homecoming, and it would certainly become even more so when Zan went upstairs to meet the rest of his family. Again, Star was sorry to have to interrupt it with a mission of her own.

It was Unos who ruined the moment, by growling at the sight of another, much larger grach in front of her. She began to sway her head again, and tried to back up and out of the door. Dolosus noticed her for the first time, and growled back at her suspiciously. Sensing trouble, Star stepped between the two, shielding Unos as much as she could. On the floor, Zan was trying to push Dolosus away, but failing because his creature was standing and he was practically lying on his back.

"He really doesn't mean anything by it," Zan insisted, as Dolosus kept pushing his way out of the boy's hands. "He's quite harmless, once he knows you."

"So is she," Star answered. "They must be as surprised to meet each other as we were."

Suddenly, it seemed to her that the hissing of the two grach were forming into words that she could understand. Frowning in concern, she focused on this, and found that she knew what they were saying to each other.

I am called Iron Hide, growled a deep, masculine voice that was certainly Dolosus. I am lord of this house, and it's people. I will protect Lion Man with my life, if I must. Who are you, with your strange people, that you come like this into my place?

I am called Only One, answered a higher, feminine voice hat was certainly Unos. I have come here with Small Star, because she has asked me to, and promised I would be safe. She carries the light of the lord of Earth. Who are you, to make her a liar?

Many strange things suddenly made perfect sense in Star's mind. She had felt changed, somehow, ever since the previous afternoon. That had been since she had put the Earth Sigil around her neck, and forgotten that she was wearing it. She had felt wiser somehow, and had found herself unable to lie to anyone. She had known and understood things that she couldn't explain, but simply knew them in her heart. And now, by deep magic, she found that she could understand the secret language of animals.

All of these were mystic powers of the Earth Sigil. She had known of them all her life, and wondered how it must be to have them, but had never honestly considered them. They were things she had thought she would never know for herself. Yet she had been experiencing them the whole time, and had been too busy and impatient to think of it.

Zamiel and Forley didn't know any of this, of course. Zamiel rushed to help his brother, and Forley did his best to help urge Unos inside. It was a struggle, but they all managed it in the end. Soon, they were crowded into a dark storage room, stuck on different sides of two angry grach and a wagon that reeked of fish.

"Zan, what is going on with you?" Zamiel demanded in frustration. "Who are these people? What are they doing here?"

"Close the door," Zan said instead, mostly to Forley. "We can't be seen or heard."

"You don't have to tell me twice," Forley agreed, and pulled the door shut.

"Why is that?" Zamiel asked, turning on the strangers. "You are only fisher folk, if I'm correct."

"Well, it was our first and last day at it," Forley answered carelessly, resting his hands on the back of his head. "It suited us poorly, and so we gave it up right away."

Zamiel made a face, disbelieving. "I don't understand you," he complained. "If only one of you would just tell me what is going on, here. If you have done something to help my brother, you have my deepest thanks. I will repay you in any way I can, I promise. Just please, tell me who you are, at least."

"You won't like it, especially after promising something like that," Zan said in his sarcastic way. "Now that the door is shut and we are alone, I'd say it is safe for the girls to come out of hiding."

Needing no more than that, Alanis and Leah burst from beneath the canvas, gasping for fresh air.

"Finally!" Alanis exclaimed. "I swear, that stench was physically killing me."

Zamiel gasped in alarm and stumbled back, his handsome face a mask of terror.

"Why, they are of Rin," he cried. "I'll put my own eyes out if I am wrong!"

"I'm sorry, sir, but we all are," Star corrected, feeling truly sorry for frightening the man. "We've come here on a mission of our own, and we need your help."

Zan moved across the room to stand beside her, and hesitantly put his hand on her shoulder.

"This is Star," he said to his brother. "The woman we were sent to take is her mother, and she is determined to find her. She rescued me from imprisonment and death, on the condition that I help her into the city." Narrowing his eyes at the others, he added, "The rest of them learned of it by spying on us, and insisted on joining us. I suspect they meant to be of some help, but they have mostly just been a bother."

Alanis glared at him. Forley shrugged and focused his attention on an empty corner. Leah fixed her spectacles and sighed.

"It is true, Alanis and I haven't been exactly useful so far," she agreed. "Never in a million years would our pale faces blend into your city, no matter how many marks we wore. But Star is half Zebak, herself; and my brother takes very much after our half-Traveler father. They play the part much better than we do. All the same, we couldn't just let Star run off her own like this. Not when we knew of her plan, and what she meant to do. We love her with all our hearts, and intend to be here for her in any way we can. Having just lost and found your brother, surely you understand, sir."

Zamiel was still in shock, and considering the people before him slowly. Then he looked beseechingly at his brother.

"Zan, this is madness."

"I know, that's what I said," Zan agreed. "But they wouldn't listen to me, and refused to let us go without them. It was the only chance I had."

"Yes, that too, but it wasn't what I meant," Zamiel sighed, rubbing his hand over his face. "We had a plan, brother. It was a good plan. We all spent days working it out, and it has gone well for us. These people of Rin will change everything, and there is much going on here that they don't know."

"How can we be so much trouble to you?" Star demanded, stepping forward and facing Zamiel with all her boldness. "All we mean to do is rescue my mother. If you were planning to do this anyway, we can only be of help to you. If we have such a common goal, it would be best to work together in any way we can."

Zamiel regarded her sternly, and she could almost hear thoughts clicking into place in his mind. He was thinking quickly, calculating everything, and amending the holes she had suddenly torn in his great plan.

"I see," he said at last, faintly laughing without humor. "You must be very like your mother and father, in more ways than one." His eyes darted toward his brother, waiting impatiently for him to do something; then he shook his head and put his fists on his hips.

"Well, it seems you people surely have done something to help my brother—something rather big, and at great risk to yourselves. Seeing as I have already foolishly promised to repay you, I suppose I do owe you a dangerous favor of my own. Zan, you've led them here in the hopes of sheltering them, have you not?"

Zan shrugged. "It would be very nice of you."

To this, Zamiel began to laugh again, a little more heartily this time. "Very well, then. The two of you, get out of that wretched cart, before you suffocate; and all of you young people, come inside our home. Everyone else is still upstairs, waiting to meet you. It won't do to keep them waiting, now will it?"

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Zan had run into the house and dashed upstairs ahead of them, and was being welcomed home with cheers and cries, and praises in a foreign language. The noise coming from the upper floor was incredible. Knowing the chaos going on up there, Zamiel insisted that his guests remain on the ground floor for a time, until his countrymen and woman had calmed down.

"That's one loud family you have," Forley commented.

"Almost family," Zamiel had corrected, smiling lovingly toward the stairs. "Our brother Zaneth is up there somewhere, and so is the woman I hope to marry one day. Other than that, they are the rest of squad C-57. There are ten of us all together, now that Zan is home. We have all been together for a long time. I suppose we really are like a family to ourselves."

Leah smiled at the thought, observing some framed pictures on the wall. "We know the feeling well," she said. "Our own family is very big, but mostly just made up of smaller families with no blood between them. It's easy to forget that most of our aunts and uncles and cousins aren't even related to us at all. It's a cozy kind of feeling, don't you think?"

Alanis huffed to herself and leaned again the same wall. "Star isn't even my cousin," she added. "She's my niece, really. Her father is my older brother—my much older brother. There are only three years separating me from her, and so it's always been strange to think of myself as her aunt. Still, she is a handful, and I'm always having to track her down and look after her."

Star rolled her eyes. "You don't have to do that, you know. I can take care of myself."

"Yes, I can see that."

Zamiel smiled at their arguing. "You sound like my brothers. Hm… I wonder at how I should explain all this to my comrades, though. So much is already going on; it's been like one enormous puzzle that keeps making itself bigger and bigger. They won't appreciate finding another piece to find a place for."

"Then perhaps we should reveal ourselves to them another time," Leah suggested, focusing hard on a framed map. "We've hidden ourselves well enough from the rest of the city. If we are cautious, I'm sure we can stay hidden from your men, somehow."

"I agree with you, young lady, but that may be easier said than done," Zamiel said thoughtfully. "I haven't a place to hide so many foreigners in this house, especially not when the rest of the squad gathers here every other day. But perhaps my Ofelia can be of some help. She and her father run a bakery a few blocks over, and their attic apartment is usually empty."

Forley grinned and rubbed his hands together. "You don't say! I happen to be a baker, myself. It could solve our problem nicely, don't you think, Leah?"

"Perhaps," she answered evenly. "If the lady agrees to help us, which she may not. It would be a terrible risk, and she may not be willing to get her father involved. I know I certainly wouldn't be."

"Well, I think we can count on her to help," Zamiel interrupted. "Ofelia has already taken several such risks for me recently, and has been a great help. I trust the woman with my life, and more importantly with my brothers. Even if she is unwilling, she will keep your presence a secret, and find another way to help. That is just how she is."

While the rest of them dared to look hopeful about this, Alanis scoffed. "I'll believe that when I've met her. If I don't think she can be trusted, we won't go any place with her."

Leah glanced over her shoulder with her eyebrow raised. "I don't think you get to make that decision for all of us," she pointed out. "We never put you in charge."

Alanis straightened herself to full height, looking very strong and very proud. "My father is in charge of everything at home. I have watched him act as a leader all my life, and know more than a thing or two about it, myself. Not to mention he allowed me to lead the trading party in his place, and I did an excellent job at that. Of course I should be in charge."

Forley chuckled. "You aren't even of age, my dear," he teased. "Lawfully, as the only adult among us, I should be the one in charge. So don't bother trying to boss me around; you'll need your energy, if you mean to make Star listen to you."

Leah smirked in agreement, and then turned back to the map. It was her way of saying that the discussion was over. Alanis gasped indignantly and shot a look at Star, silently demanding support. Star ignored her and walked to stand beside Leah, instead. She, too, was curious about the map on the wall, and wanted to get a better look at it.

It was an old map, slightly faded but well-preserved behind the glass frame. Whoever had drawn it had done so with great care and passion, filling in details as small as rivers, remote villages, bridges, and places of local interest. There were mountains, valleys, deserts, plains, forests, and vast seas, all of them named clearly and neatly.

Star recognized some of those names, too. There was the Silver Sea. And Maris. And the Plains of the western wild. There was also the Zebak lands, divided into three provinces—Habaharan, Nomalia, and Makeloma—with their namesake cities and wide roads connecting like a web.

There were far more names that Star didn't know. To the far north was a jagged, white-colored landmass labeled Eisvelt; to the far south was a large island labeled Vaisous, with a great volcano in its center and dense forests stretching to its shores. In the far east was the land of Dorne, alone in the vast Sea of Serpents. In the very center, as if the rest of the world somehow revolved around it, was an enormous kingdom called Deltora—the largest and most detailed country on the map.

"This is our world," Star whispered, enchanted. "I never realized there was so much of it!"

"Or how small our part of it really is," Leah added, pointing to a tiny dot in the northwestern corner of the map. That dot seemed insignificant, at first glance; but the letters that labeled it as Rin were large, showing that the place was far more important than its size. Still, it was one of the few things to point out on that part of the map.

Interested by their companions' observations, Alanis and Forley wandered over to have a look. They admired the map in awed silence for a moment, until Forley made a face and tapped on the glass. He was pointing at a wide, blackened stretch of land directly between Deltora and the Zebak lands, separating the two countries completely. That land was completely colored in, and unlabeled. It was just an ominous void, sitting in the middle of the map.

"What about this shaded-in place?" he asked. "It has no name, and no landmarks at all. What is it even doing there?"

Zamiel came to look where he was pointing, and made a face of his own. "They call it the Shadow Lands," he said grimly. "A terrible place of death and despair. Some say that it is ruled over by a great sorcerer, ageless in time as well as wickedness. Rumor has it that the fiend had Deltora in a strangle hold for many years, and that they only recently won their freedom. Good for them, I say. Not very far to their north, their Zebak neighbors aren't faring half as well as they are."

The resentment in his voice made them all look up at him, just to make sure he was alright. He was frowning at the map, his violet eyes burning with many emotions. While Zamiel had been overjoyed, then alarmed, then affectionately smiling, it had escaped them all that he was still a Zebak captain. Now that he was frowning and upset, they all remembered it.

After a moment, the many thoughts and feelings battling in his face settled into a single notion. Zamiel raised his hand and pressed a longing finger against Deltora.

"I can't hate them for that," he said quietly. "They are very fortunate to have escaped their imprisonment. Many of our own people have fled to their land for sanctuary in the past and never came back; so I can only hope that Deltora is as good a place as they say."

"Perhaps they were simply lost at sea before they could get there," Alanis suggested dryly. Zamiel rolled his eyes and moved away from them.

"You sound like my master," he commented flatly. "And like many others who have lost hope."

Having overheard her friend's encounter with General Azan and how awful the man was, Alanis looked startled. She had only spoken her mind, no doubt meaning to sound practical and realistic. But she had no desire to sound like the man who owned the Garased family. She now looked sick with herself.

"Well, I have not lost hope," Zamiel was continuing. "Not by a long shot. They try to drill it out of us at a young age, and it often works; but not always. It is like trying to put out candles in the dark: as long as one stubborn candle refuses to go out, there is enough light to find it by. They would like for us not to think of brave, stubborn places like Deltora, alight for all to see. But I do see them, and they give me great hope."

"Hope for what?" Star asked, excited by the man's words.

Zamiel smiled. "For my own people. Hope that one day, if we are just as brave and stubborn, we will be free, too."

He crossed his arms and became more serious. "The mission to kidnap your mother was only the latest in a long line of offenses, young one," he said. "My people haven't cared for it any more than yours have. Someone actually managed to escape once, and has lived a long and happy life in peace and freedom; how could we wish her back here with us, in slavery? The whole thing caused an uproar, you know; we came back to learn that there had been talk of riots."

"It sounds like you aren't the only one who still bothers to hope," Forley commented. "At the very least, some of your countrymen dare to be bold and take a stand."

"I suppose, but a riot here and an upstart there will change nothing," Zamiel answered, shaking his head. "In small numbers, those brave souls are always caught, imprisoned, and killed swiftly. It happens at least twice a year, and that is only here, in Habaharan City. So, you see our problem. We would like very much to fight for our freedom from the Dragon Lords; rebellion boils hotter and hotter in us with every new generation. But it would take an army to do it with any kind of success, and a level of secrecy which has never been achieved before."

The four Rinfolk exchanged wondering looks as they thought this over.

"So, what do you plan to do?" Leah asked.

Zamiel gave her a sly smile. "Nothing much. Just to raise an army in secret, that's all."

Forley was impressed at once. "You must be one convincing captain, then. Where do you think to begin?"

"Oh, it's already begun. My brothers and I are well liked here in Southside; gaining supporters and earning their trust and loyalty has been nothing. Besides, owned people outnumber peasants in this city at least ten to one. With a little organization and a clever plan, they could overrun the palace easily. I don't know if you've noticed this yet, but the people with real power here are deceived by common folk with great ease."

"It makes sense to me," Leah agreed, fixing her glasses again. "People like Zared Azan think highly of themselves, with their studies and uniforms and legions. He must look at ordinary people, and even lower-ranking soldiers, and find them less than himself in every way. If he was told that a humble man knew something he did not, he wouldn't believe it. He would even be outraged and offended."

"Exactly, especially when that humble man is a slave. For some odd reason, our great generals believe that slaves are unintelligent by nature; perhaps because the generals are all cruel by nature, and believe that is just the way of the world. It would never dawn on our leaders that the city's slaves have the capacity to band together for any purpose, but most certainly not to overthrow them. And that puzzles me, because more than half of this city's citizens are owned by someone else. If I were in charge of things, that number would worry me terribly."

Even Alanis looked impressed now, but remained doubtful. "And once you've organized all these slaves into an army, what will you do next? Storm the palace armed only with torches and pitchforks?"

Zamiel made a face. "That seems a poor range of options; I had been thinking more along the lines of swords, arrows, and magicites. You know, useful weapons that can't be struck in half with a single blow. But I suppose it would be simple, in either case. The Titan would have hundreds of guards and generals at her command, armed with iron swords and magic. But what are those hundreds compared to thousands, armed with short tempers and a chance at freedom? And as soon as this army of slaves rises up at the same time, and cries out with one voice, just wait and see how many legions still take sides with the queen."

"You don't really think it will be that easy, do you?" Alanis drawled.

"Of course not. It is only an idea I have been working on, because I know I must. Due to the secret nature of it, progress has been very slow. Many have refused to have anything to do with it, because they are afraid; they have businesses and families to tend to as best they can, which I can't blame them for. I have steered this ship mainly on my own from the very beginning, and will probably continue to do so to the bitter end. Even if the plan is ever completed and we find ourselves ready to attack, many of my own men will be killed; it can't be avoided. And who is to say, even then, that we would be successful? Our queen is still a Titan, and deep magic is still great in her. She may not need her hundreds against our thousands; she may be able to summon some power to wipe us out on her own. No, easy is not the right word for what this plan is; that is a terrible word for it."

Star's face fell. "But you were so excited about it, just a moment ago."

"Yes, before someone decided to open her big, rude mouth," Forley added, pinning Alanis with a look.

"Oh, make no mistake, I'm thrilled about my little plan," Zamiel insisted. "It's the small victories that keep me going—all those distant lights in the dark that I find my way towards, one by one. We are moving in a direction, at least, slowly but surely. And we will get there one day. Not today. Not tomorrow. Probably not even next year, or the year after that. But if my men and I can keep leaving lit candles in our wake, and keep our people's hope alive, then we have done our job. Our real job. It doesn't seem like much; but then, neither do most of us."

Alanis was opening her mouth again, but Star spun around and spoke first.

"Say whatever you want, Alanis, but I think he has a chance," she said crossly. "At least he is willing to try, even when people like you don't see the point."

"What do you mean, people like me?" Alanis demanded. "I never said he shouldn't try. I only meant that he should be practical, as well as hopeful, because wishful thinking rarely gets anything done."

"Well, that's not how it sounded. We're not in Rin anymore, Alanis. These people don't value thing as ours do. You don't sound practical, you sound cold and mean. At least try to understand that."

Leaving her cousin looking startled, she turned back to Zamiel. "Zan had spoken of a great plan, before we left. I had thought at first that it was meant for my mother alone; but I'm starting to see that she is only one part of something much bigger. Is that why you've decided to help her?"

"In a manner," the man answered evenly. "Initially, the mission to take her was just another mess we were forced to make; none of us could have faced ourselves in the mirror, if we hadn't done something to clean it up. However, her arrival here was an unexpected blessing. Having her dragged back here has clearly upset my people; and her tales of a free life may help to inspire them, if she is willing to share them. I like to hope that she will help us."

"Wait just a moment," she interrupted, her heart fluttering with hope of her own. "You speak as if it were already done. Have you seen her?"

Zamiel hesitated. "I have, in fact," he said slowly. "Zane and I helped her escape the palace dungeons, only just last night."

Overcome, Star rushed forward and snatched his hands in her own. "Where is she?" she begged, tears filling her eyes. "You must know where she is! Tell me, please!"

"I'm afraid I can't just now," Zamiel replied, his voice heavy with regret. "It is a deadly secret. People I love dearly have put themselves in great danger by helping and hiding her. To betray them now is a risk I simply cannot take."

Star was aghast. "But the whole reason we've come here was to find her, ourselves! If you would only tell me where my mother is now, we would take her home with us right away. There would be no more need for secrets and hiding."

Zamiel gripped her steadily by the shoulders. "You don't seem to understand the nature of this business, young one," he said gravely, sounding very much like his youngest brother. "You have made into the city and across it without being discovered—a small wonder of its own. But entering the city by any means is easy enough. Leaving it is all but impossible. You would need passage on a navy ship, which will certainly be denied you unless you are of Central Control. If you were thinking to fly away on your beast under cover of night, put the idea out of your head this instant; you would be seen by the Night Watch, and shot out of the sky before you had flown two miles."

"But… But there must be a way," she stammered back, nearly heartbroken with disappointment.

"And I am certain there is, somewhere we haven't thought of yet," he answered. "But if it were so easy, most of our people already would have taken the opportunity to slip through that crack ages ago. I'm afraid that you, and your mother, and your cousins are all stuck here for quite a while. And until we know for certain that we can get you home safely, I will not tell you where she is. I simply can't. Of course I would, but let us face the facts. I hardly know who you are yet, and I have risked far too much to lend all my trust to a stranger."

Star looked back at her cousins, who were just as alarmed as she was. Their task had seemed so easy when they had flown away from home. All they had meant to do was find Zeel, and then fly away. They had expected Zan's brothers to help them without question, to take them to her right away, and then help them slip unnoticed out of the city. They had never considered that there might not be a way to leave, or that help would come so slowly. Alanis cursed, and stomped her foot on the floor.

"That treacherous little worm," she muttered. "He never mentioned this. Now he has us trapped here for heaven even knows how long! He's done this to us on purpose, I'll swear by it!"

"That is doubtful," Leah said gently, placing a restraining hand on her shoulder. "Zan is so used to it, he probably never thought of it. He may even have thought that we were counting on it the whole time. And he did try his best to talk us out of it; he told us several times that we didn't know what we were getting into, but we were too impatient to ask him what he meant. If anyone has trapped us here, we have only ourselves to blame."

Star thought of this, and remembered when she had met Zan in the jailhouse. She had spoken with such confidence of coming to this place, and it had troubled him. He had acted as if such a thing were a ridiculous thing to do for the sake of a single person. No wonder he had acted this way. He had known more surely than the rest of them that once they had followed him to his homeland, there really was no going back. And, as Leah had pointed out, he knew it as he knew how to breathe, or speak, or walk; he knew it so well that he hadn't even thought to mention it.

She considered all of this and sighed deeply. Her own clever plans had just changed so much. And they had unwittingly caused these good, noble people a great deal of trouble. Now she and her friends would have to be hidden somewhere, housed and fed by people they didn't know, who might not even be willing to do it. And what did they have to offer in exchange for it? Nothing that she could think of. They were now at the mercy of the Zebak, and would be for a very long time.

Above them, the noise of happy reunion was still going on and on. The people upstairs were still distracted with Zan, and would hopefully remain so for a while. With luck, they had forgotten all about the two fisher folk who had appeared with him, and weren't wondering why Zamiel hadn't joined them yet. He glanced toward the stairs, perhaps guessing at how to explain what had just happened, and who he dared to explain it to.

"The two of you, I think I can introduce safely to my squad," he said, nodding to Star and then to Forley. "You certainly do look the part; I don't know if I would have guessed who you really are, even up close, unless Zan hadn't surprised me so badly. But you girls will have to be hidden until they have left. I hate to have to coop you up like that, after all you've been through so far, but I don't know if there is another choice."

Alanis continued to pout furiously, angry that all her preparations had turned out to be useless in this place. Leah shrugged and sighed.

"That is probably for the best," she said. "Zan was right about that; we have only been in the way since we came here."

"That isn't true," Forley insisted, nudging his sister with his elbow. "You've kept Alanis from beating anyone to death, and that is remarkable. Someone has to be the voice of reason around here, after all."

"True, indeed," Leah answered lightly. "That person certainly isn't you."

The two shared a short laugh over that; Star and Zamiel couldn't help but join them. It felt good to Star to laugh. It was a refreshing change from panic and disappointment. Alanis continued to sulk, and said nothing.

Well, here we are, Star thought, feeling lighthearted from laughter, in spite of everything. Perhaps…. Perhaps it was destiny that I carry the Earth sigil here with me. Blinded by fear and despair, papa has no need of it; he wasn't even willing to listen to it. But I am here, doing something, and on an adventure of my own. The sigil will be very useful in the days to come, and I intend to hear every word it has to offer.

My adventure really has begun.

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Afterthoughts…

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Lol, like you needed to know that. ;D

A quick story aid, because my brother asked me earlier what Forley looks like, exactly. Well, I'll tell you. I want you to picture Allun the baker in your mind—however it is you picture him, just picture him in your mind. Now imagine him wearing a green bandana. THAT is what Forley looks like. XD

Yes, the rest of this saga takes place in the Zebak lands. Yes, there are four other books after this one. Yes, there will be epic double-four-liners in each one.

And yes, the Shadow Lord lives right next door. I mean, come on. It's not obvious? When you line Rowan's map up with Lief's map, it's too close a match to be otherwise. Eisvelt and Vaious are places I have made up for the sake of storytelling and filling in plotholes I dug for myself. They aren't important to this saga; but they are important to the aftermath of it. Dragon-Titan-Lairad-magic stuff, if you catch my drift. One day I will get to writing that point. One day….

In the meantime, Star's Journey: The Dragon Queen is complete. So throw some confetti, pop some nice champagne, and celebrate! CELEBRATE, I SAY! 8D

Roses to all,

Freida Right.