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breathe, darling, breathe in deep for me

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They had hardly landed on Deltoran soil before Jasmine had scrambled out of Bruna’s pouch. Her stomach churned from the storm as she stumbled to where Prin lay, panting.

“What happened?” Jasmine shrieked. Her throat had been ripped raw by the wind, and her fingers gripped Prin’s soft fur much too hard. “Did you drop him, Prin?”

“No! He jumped out, I swear it,” Prin sobbed. “I did not realize until it was too late— I could not stop him!”

“He jumped?” Jasmine cried. “Why would he—?”

Suddenly it made terrible sense. She let Prin go, and stumbled backwards. Of course Lief had jumped; flying only a little farther would have brought him across Deltora’s border, and to his death. Of course, Barda had gone after him. Jasmine cursed herself for her weakness. It was not supposed to be like this, the three of them were never again meant to be parted. But the water that might have saved Lief would have swallowed her.

Kree swooped down and landed on her shoulder. Her shirts and jackets always ended up tattered on the shoulders, an unavoidable consequence of such a friendship. But she welcomed the firm grip of his talons— it grounded her. She reached a trembling hand back to cup his small head.

Kree cawed, gentle as he could. What would you have me do?

Jasmine reached a cold, shaking hand into one of her pockets. She felt Filli, curled deep into the folds of the fabric, but did not stop until she had dug out a pencil and a scrap of paper. “Tor—Tora,” she stammered. She could feel the eyes of the Kin burning into her downturned head. “They will help us.”

The wind had died down, but tendrils of damp hair clung to Jasmine’s neck, and she shook from cold and fear. She wrote Marilen a hasty note, telling her only that Lief and Barda were in danger, and that she sought Toran aid. Usually, when she wrote, she took time and care to be sure that her letters were neat and her spelling was not too riddled with mistakes. But this note she wrote quickly: messy letters ran together, and some words were barely legible in their errors, but she did not care. When she was done, she rolled the paper up and tied it to Kree, who could fly faster than the Kin. He did not need direction; he left immediately.

Jasmine turned back to the Kin. Bruna was trying to comfort Prin, who still cried. Jasmine wanted dearly to snap at Prin, to shake her, anything to make her stop, but she knew it would only make things worse.

But Ailsa stared at her with clear eyes. “We will take you to Tora, of course,” she gestured to her pouch. “We better leave now, if we are to keep the light.”

Jasmine nodded. She felt hollow, like her insides had been carved out with a spoon. The sun had returned from the barrier the clouds had made, and she could not hide the fear on her face. She clambered dutifully into Ailsa’s pouch, and the Kin began to bound down across the muddy ground, until last they began to rise. The beat of heavy wings behind them told Jasmine that Prin and Bruna were following behind.

They moved fast, but Kree was faster still, and it was not too long before the magic sent by the Torans began to pull them ever closer to the white city. To Jasmine, it seemed as if every beat of Ailsa’s wings took her further and further away from Lief.

They reached Tora very quickly, but it felt like forever to Jasmine.

“We will not enter,” Ailsa said, as Jasmine climbed out of her pouch. “We can search for them from the skies.”

“Thank you,” Jasmine told them, and raced into the tunnel. Her heart pounded painfully. When she burst through the other end, she found Zeean, Sharn, Marilen, and Ranesh waiting for her. Tora’s magic could not hide the fear and worry on their faces.

“Where is he?” Sharn gasped, her arms reaching out. Her face was stained with tears as if she already knew.

“I lost them,” Jasmine said hoarsely, and allowed Sharn to gather her in her arms.

Despite Jasmine’s pleas, Zeean insisted that they did not begin a search until the morning.

“We will not find them in the dark,” she had said, “and you need rest.”

Zeean had guided Sharn to her chambers, and left Jasmine with Marilen and Ranesh, who took her to the same room she had slept in when she had stayed in Tora not at all long ago.

Before they left her alone, Marilen had took her hand.

“Let us know if there is anything you need,” she said softly. “Even if you must wake us, we will be there.”

When they left, Jasmine closed and locked the door. Kree had returned to her, and Filli scuttled to the familiar bed. Jasmine opened the window, and sat on the edge of the bed and scrubbed her hands down her face. Her body ached from exhaustion, but she did not wish to sleep. Her eyes blurred, but she refused to cry. 

They would never leave her like this.

Lief had promised he would never again leave her.

She pressed her knuckles against her closed eyes until she saw stars. How she longed to see his face again.

A realization struck her so hard that she bolted to her feet. Perhaps there was a way she could. She stumbled towards a chair on the other end of the room, where she had thrown her pack. She dug through it for a moment, until her fingers curled around the cool metal of her flask.

The water of the Dreaming Spring was as sweet and cold as she remembered. When she had finished drinking, she pulled off her grimy travelling clothes, and slipped into the soft grey nightdress that had been left on the bed. The little action already made her feel just a bit better.  There was no need for her to despair. The magic of the Spring would show her Lief.

She crawled into the bed and closed her eyes. In the darkness, she saw Lief’s face. She saw the way his eyes squeezed shut when he laughed. How his nostrils flared when he was angry. How his cheeks flushed when he was embarrassed, how they would pale when he was frightened. How he looked at her, with such love and longing. How he would grin wickedly before he said something he knew would make her laugh. She saw the wounds left by the mask, now cleanly healing into scars. She thought about how all she had to do was reach out, and he would wind his calloused fingers between her own.

Thoughts of the one she loved made her feel a little less alone, and sleep pulled her gently down. She would see him in her dreams.

When Jasmine woke in the morning she forgot, for a moment, where she was. Early morning light filtered through the gauzy curtains, and the soft sheets she had slept on felt so strange after weeks of sleeping with only a bedroll between her body and the earth. Slowly, the events of the day before trickled into her mind. It felt to her that she had only just fallen asleep, for her rest had been undisturbed by dreams.

Tears fell freely from her eyes, as agony carved a hole in her heart. It was the same hot, sick feeling that she had felt when she had failed to dream of her father only a couple years before. Hopelessness was a heavy weight in her belly.

But she had not dreamt of Doom, and still he had lived.

Lief and Barda had survived much worse than this. They would live, and she would be the one to find them.

A soft knock came from the door. Kree was gone, no doubt he had flown through the open window long ago, but Filli stirred sleepily.

Jasmine’s heart swelled. Perhaps the Kin had found them, and someone had been sent to fetch her. She dried her face on her sleeves and hurried to unlock the door. Zeean stepped into the room, and the grave expression on her face nearly broke Jasmine’s heart.

“Have they been found?” Jasmine asked, dreading the answer.

Zeean sighed. “We have not begun the search.”

“I am ready to begin now.”

“Jasmine…” Zeean was very pale. “At dawn I felt a weight on my heart, and for a moment it seemed as if the sky had gone black. It seems that I am not alone in this, for all in our city felt the same.”

A wave of cold dread washed over Jasmine’s body. “What are you saying?”

Zeean opened her mouth to speak, but was interrupted as Sharn burst into the room. Her hair was loose and unbrushed, and she had clearly dressed in a hurry. She gripped Jasmine’s shoulder, and turned to Zeean. “I had hoped we would speak with her together.”

“I had thought that hearing this again would be upsetting,” Zeean sighed again. “I meant no disrespect.”

“You are speaking of my son  Zeean. I will be upset if I must, but I will not do nothing.”

Jasmine leaned in closer to Sharn, feeling a rush of gratitude and love for the other woman. “And what do you mean, Zeean?”

The Toran woman’s pity-filled eyes flickered between the two. “There is nothing I wish more than to find them safe, but I do not believe we should put too much hope in that.”

“I will not leave Lief and Barda for dead because of a magic feeling,” Jasmine said tightly. “You said that we could begin searching at dawn. We need to cover the coast— they could be hurt.”

Zeean turned her head, her eyes far away as she spoke and listened to her people without ever moving her lips. After a minute she looked back and nodded once. “They are preparing to leave.”

“Who?” Sharn asked, tightening her grasp on Jasmine’s arm.

Zeean’s lips twitched. “Everyone.”

The Torans used their magic to transport themselves down the coast, as far as their connection to the city would allow. Many took narrow rowboats into the water, but the boats were pretty, decorative things, and they soon had to turn back. Others rode east or south, speaking to travellers and inn-keepers who might have caught glimpses of the king and the captain of the guard. The Torans told no one of why they were sought, for Zeean had insisted that they keep everything a secret until more news came, to not disturb a kingdom that had been weighed down by suffering for so long. She did, however, send a bird to Doom in Del, so that he could begin to prepare for the worst.

Jasmine tended mostly to the coast. She climbed over huge and slimy boulders, uncaring as salty waves crashed over her. She found a small pool where little, bright-orange creatures swam lazily. They would have looked quite like hair ribbons, had it not been for their nasty stingers. She found a pair of shells that looked like pink petals, and she pocketed them to show Lief later. She found that Kree liked to eat the salty green weeds that grew in the shallows. But she did not find Lief and Barda.

Four more nights and days passed like this. Each evening, Jasmine would sip Dreaming Spring water from her flask and think of Lief; smiling and calling to her. In the morning she would wake from a dreamless sleep, her pillow soaked with tears. In the day she would join the search parties, stopping to eat and drink only when Sharn or Marilen made her. Sharn did as she always had: she kept going. Sometimes she would slip her work-rough hand into Jasmine’s and they would walk the length of the shore, silent and hand-in-hand. Sharn was pale, and her eyes were shadowed, but she walked with her head held high, and her face turned toward the sea.

Manus coincidentally arrived in Tora, and Jasmine welcomed the familiar face, although it pained her to tell him why she was in the city. Ever eager, he willingly joined the search party. The Kin came and went, but brought no news

Jasmine avoided the people she did not know, for she hated the way they looked at her. It was the same way people had treated her when she returned from the Shadowlands: like she was fragile, like she might break. But she did not have the luxury of falling apart, not when Lief and Barda needed her to be strong.

Zeean approached Jasmine on the fifth day of the search. They stood together, watching the little search boats far across the water. In the shallows, dozens of Torans floundered in the sea, some waist-deep in water, some half-swimming. Their robes billowed in the water like colourful sea-creatures. They flitted between communicating with their minds and their words the further they went from Tora, so that Jasmine sometimes only heard fragments of sentences at a time. Sometimes they would laugh, or purposely splash one another, and Jasmine hated them for their happiness. It was the first time Sharn had not come to aid in the search. When Jasmine had said goodbye to her, the other woman’s eyes had been red-rimmed and her hands were shaking.

“I will write to your father again today,” Zeean finally said.

It was a warm morning, but Jasmine wrapped her arms around herself as if she were freezing. “Why?”

“We cannot lie to the people any longer.”

“We are not lying.”

Zeean turned away from the sea. “Everyday we keep this a secret only makes it worse, Jasmine.”

“How could anything be worse than this?” Jasmine cried.

Zeean took a slow breath. “The people loved Lief, and it is not fair to keep this our secret. And it is not fair to Marilen, who will have to bear the burden of her peoples’ grief. Nor to Sharn, who needs to grieve for her son, which you are not letting her do. Of course, we will not give up on this search. We owe Lief and Barda the highest respect and honour, and we must find the Belt. But we cannot keep pretending.”

 

Jasmine was far away enough from Tora for fury to boil in her belly. How she wished to take Zeean by her shoulders and shake some sense into her. But she knew Zeean well, and it dawned on her that her hands were not the only weapon she had.

“Tora owes me a debt,” she spoke cooly, although her hands trembled with rage. “Had you not denied Sharn and Endon sanctuary, my mother might have lived, Doom would not have lost all that he did, and I would have been born safe. I lost my family once because of a decision you had no right to make. It will not happen again.”

Zeean flinched as if she had been struck, and Jasmine’s grim satisfaction was only faintly tainted by guilt.

“I will write to Doom,” Jasmine turned and walked away with her head held high. When she had gone far enough, she stumbled behind a thick tree and dissolved into painful tears.

In the afternoon, Jasmine penned a new note to Doom, and sent Kree to Del with Toran magic to speed his passage. She returned to her room and found Sharn sitting on the edge of her bed, her eyes were puffy and her mouth was a thin white line. After only a moment of hesitation, Jasmine sat down beside her. Sharn took her hand, stroking Jasmine’s palm with her thumb. Jasmine fought the urge to lay her head in Sharn’s lap, as she had done with her mother so long ago.

“I was angry, too, when Endon died,” Sharn said quietly. Jasmine bowed her head, clearly Sharn had been told of her outburst. “It did not seem fair that he would leave me when Lief had only just returned. I was angry that the man I loved had been taken, and that I had been left alone.”

Jasmine said nothing. She knew what Sharn was trying to say, but she could not bear to say it out loud.

“But I was not alone,” she gripped Jasmine’s hand tighter, as tears fell from her eyes. “I am not alone. And neither are you.”

The two women sat together for a long time. It seemed that the room was filled with ghosts that would only be held at bay as long as they clung to each other.

Jasmine woke the next morning to the sound of Kree’s harsh caws. She lay still for a moment, half-hoping she was still asleep, that dreams might still come. But he cawed again, and she was forced to rise. He hopped up on the bedside table, and stuck his leg out so that she could remove the letter that had been tied to him.

She pulled her dagger from the sheath on the other side of the bed, and eagerly cut the letter free. The paper had been folded and sealed with wax, so that it would be obvious if anyone had tried to tamper with it. Of course, she thought as she broke the seal with her dagger, it was also written in code. At the top right corner there was a rough pencil sketch of a cluster of trees, beside a pair of lips with a finger pressed against them. In a different time, Jasmine might have laughed at the stupid image Doom conveyed. The letter was very brief.

MUDDY FOREST, YET GREEN ROOTS CLIMB.

WOODS PLANT NOTHING.

VINES SAY LEAVES.

WILL I HUNT CREATURES?

TREES HOPE, STREAMS KEEP BERRIES.

PATHS UNDERSTAND BIRDCALLS.

HERBS I GROW.

For the first time in days, Jasmine managed a small smile. Of course Doom would understand. Doom, who always put all his faith in the people he loved. Doom, who never gave up, even when others had lost all hope. She was his daughter, and she would do the same.

On the ninth day, Jasmine ate a midday meal on a grassy outcrop with Marilen and Ranesh. She had spent the morning on one of the boats with Ranesh, and only returned when he insisted Marilen was waiting for them. When they finished eating, Jasmine began to to ask Marilen about something that had been on her mind. It was an idea that seemed to good to be true, but it ignited a small flame of hope in her heart.

“Would you be able to send Toran magic to Lief and Barda? If it found them, would they be drawn here?”

Marilen exchanged an uneasy look with Ranesh. “No. Our magic fades the further we are from the city. Even if one of us were with them, we would not be able to get them here.”

“Perhaps we should go to Del,” Ranesh said, almost too eagerly. “They would have no reason to think you would go to Tora. If they are alive, they might have turned home to find you.”

“They would not abandon our task like that,” Jasmine frowned, but a thread of doubt squirmed in her belly. Lief might, if he thought she was in danger. All the more reason why she had to find them quickly.

“I cannot leave them behind,” she said shortly, instead. “I cannot lose my family, not again. You would not understand.”

Ranesh’s face grew thunderous, and Jasmine cursed her sharp tongue.

“Yes, of course” he said tightly, “What would I know of such things?” He rose to his feet and stormed down toward the water.

Ranesh,” Marilen called, but he did not turn. Her eyes lingered miserably on her husband’s back.

“I— I should not have said that,” Jasmine said hollowly.

“Do not blame yourself too harshly,” Marilen said softly. She watched him storm through the shallows, up to his knees in water. “He grieves for Lief and Barda, I am sure. And he is… unhappy here.”

She rubbed at her eyes, and Jasmine noticed with a pang of worry just how tired her friend looked. “He misses Josef, and I know he does not want our child to be raised in Tora.”

It took Jasmine a moment to realize what her friend had said, and then her eyes widened. “Your child?”

Marilen’s smile would have been lovely, but it was ruined by the tears in her eyes. “I was hoping to tell you in a happier time,” she said quietly. “I was… I was looking forward to telling Lief. I do not know how I will take his place, Jasmine. I cannot do the things that he could.”

“You will tell him,” Jasmine said stoutly. “And you will never have to wear the Belt, I promise you.”

Marilen leaned against her shoulder, and did not argue.

Late that night, when everyone else had returned to the city, Jasmine found Ranesh sitting in the same outcrop. He had lit a fire, and was staring out at the sea. Without waiting for an invitation, she sat cross-legged beside him. Black waves crashed against the shore below them. The gulping cries of sea birds carried over from far away. The fire crackled and spat sparks.

“It felt very good to be angry,” Ranesh said after a long moment.

Jasmine grimaced. “I was not thinking.”

“This city can be stifling,” he continued, as if he had not heard. “It is torture to sit there, eating their fine food, sleeping on their soft sheets, knowing that elsewhere people starve and know no comforts.”

He turned to her. The fire cast odd shadows on his face, and Jasmine could see that he— like Marilen— had not been sleeping well. “And so I miss even anger— truly— in Tora. It is a very real feeling,” he smiled wryly. “Perhaps that is why you and I get along so well. You are very fond of your rage.”

“That is not true,” Jasmine scoffed, but she could feel herself smiling a little. Ranesh’s white grin widened, and she knew she had been forgiven.

She leaned back on her hands and glanced at her friend. “Marilen told me she is with child.”

Ranesh looked out toward the black sea, still smiling. “Yes.”

“But you do not want to raise your baby here.”

Ranesh’s smile dropped, and he looked at her sharply. “That is between Marilen and I,” his voice dropped lower. “But it seems we may have to return to the palace, after all.”

Jasmine jerked back when it became clear to her what he had meant. She jumped to her feet, and began to pace furiously before the fire. “I would have thought that at least you would still have hope for Lief and Barda!”

“I do,” he raised his hand, as if asking for peace, and some of Jasmine’s anger cooled. “But hope and truth can be different things. I know what it is like to wait for people who will not return. As do you. Are you sure you wish to wait for nothing again?”

Jasmine dropped to her knees on the grass. Ranesh was staring at her with concern, but her thoughts were elsewhere. Everyone had been acting is if they knew how she was feeling, as if they knew her as well as she knew herself. But they did not, they could not. She was the only one who knew her own mind. She remembered the writing she had seen upon a wall of stone— it felt like a lifetime ago, and yet it had not yet been three years. She thought of the man who had written those words in blood, the man who had lost all that anyone could, but never succumbed to despair.

The fire blazed against her face, and she welcomed the heat. “I know what I must do.”

It was very late when Jasmine returned to her room. She had sat with Ranesh for a long time, talking little and listening to the waves. Filli was fast asleep on the end of the bed, and Kree dozed, perched on the back of a chair. She wished suddenly that Lindal was there— Lindal, who deserved to know what had happened to Barda, and who would undoubtably have faith in him.

Jasmine pulled her flask from her pack and unscrewed the cap. After she had drank some of the water she dropped it back in her pack with a trembling hand. Nearly ten days of troubled sleep, of fearing the worst, of helpless waiting suddenly swallowed her, and her breaths came out in gulping sobs. She stumbled towards the bed, but did not make it before she fell to her knees, clutching at the sides of the blankets with her fists.

“Come back,” she pleaded breathlessly, as hot tears rolled down her face. “Come back, please, I cannot— I cannot bear it alone!”

Filli and Kree had woken and come to her side, murmuring words meant to provide comfort, but that only made her cry harder. She could see Barda’s broad grin, hear his gruff voice. And—oh—Lief: her heart, her love, she could hear him calling. But sleep claimed her somehow, as she lay slumped before her bed.

She stood ankle-deep in an endless stretch of sand, pockmarked by rolling dunes. It was night, and the sand was strangely-coloured: varying shades of purple flowed into each other like ripples on a river. She tried to step forward and nearly fell flat on her face, for her boots were quite buried. It came to her then, that she must have been dreaming. But however real the dream felt, it was not the one she had been waiting for.

She freed one leg, and then the other, and to her great relief she did not sink back down. She stood still for a moment, and tried to get her bearings. A breeze picked up, stirring the top layer of the sand and bringing the taste of salt to her lips. She turned, and could see the crash of waves against the shore not too far away.

Curious, Jasmine made her way toward the sea. The beach was mucky and strewn with seaweed and washed up shells. The waves crashed violently against the shore, as if still healing from a storm. She looked to see how far the shore extended, and her heart caught in her throat.

Two figures lay on the shore, just out of reach of the waves. Within a heartbeat Jasmine had taken off sprinting toward them. She threw herself down as she reached them. It was Lief and Barda, unconscious and filthy, but the rise and fall of their chests told her that they were very much alive.

She reached her trembling hands toward them, wishing she could touch them and knowing she could not.

“I am coming for you,” she whispered to her sleeping family. “I am coming.”

It was not yet dawn when she woke, but she burst from where she lay slumped on the floor, screaming for Zeean.

Jasmine stood amongst the hundreds of excited Torans who had come to see them off. The sun was warm and beautiful as it shone on her face, and she pushed her way impatiently through the front of the crowd, where her friends waited.

“Are you sure you wish to come?” Zeean’s face was grave. They had spoken little since Jasmine had written to Doom.“I ask only because I am afraid that what we will find will break your heart. Perhaps you should wait with Sharn.” 

Despite her courage and strength, Sharn had decided to stay behind.

“When I thought that Lief had died in the Os-Mine Hills,” she had told Jasmine tearfully, “I still felt a flicker of hope that he would come back. But, Jasmine… it feels different this time. If I were to go and find nothing— oh, I would not be able to bear it.”

Jasmine had clasped Sharn’s hands. “I will bring him back to you, I swear it.”

Outside of the magic tunnel, Jasmine looked where Zeean stood, waiting for her answer. “I know what I dreamt.” Filli chirped with excitement and clung to her shirt. Kree took off from her shoulder, eager to leave, and Jasmine’s hopes soared high with him.

Zeean nodded once, and took Manus’s hand. Marilen, in turn took Ranesh’s.

Jasmine’s eyes were still on Zeean. “You are sure you know where this place is?”

“If I am right,” Zeean said carefully, “then it is a place I visited in my youth.”

Satisfied, Jasmine held out her hand for Ranesh to take, and slipped her other hand into Manus’s smaller one.

Together, the five companions began to stride forward. They moved only quickly at first, and then their speed grew impossibly as magic swept over them. Jasmine was still in the lead, urging them faster, even when that would have been impossible. She was soaked with sweat: from the magical speed of their movement and from the sun, but also from anticipation and fear. Her feet touched purple sand, and she rejoiced.

And then— there!

Two small figures in the sand, growing clearly as they crossed the Dunes. Jasmine cried out, for even from far away, she knew them. She could hear her companions speaking to her, but their words were just buzzing in her ears.

“Lief!” Jasmine screamed. “Barda!”

They could see her now, and they were running through the sand towards her. They waved their hands and called her name, and Jasmine grinned so hard that it pained her face.

Finally she was before them, so quickly and suddenly, that she slammed into them hard. Her arms were around them before she could say anything, grasping at the folds of their damp, sandy clothes. They were laughing, and she was too, but her laughter quickly hiccuped into great, gasping sobs. She gripped Barda hard, and Lief buried his face in her hair.

“Do not ever do that again!” she smiled through her tears. “Do not leave me behind!”

Barda laughed and put his arm around her, something he so rarely did. But after only a moment he let go and stepped away. Jasmine turned so that she fully embraced Lief. Like Barda, he looked exhausted, but to Jasmine he had never been more beautiful.

“Never again,” Lief agreed breathlessly, a dazed grin on his face. “I heard you! It might have been the dragon, but it was your voice I heard calling.”

Jasmine could hardly make sense of what he spoke, but she buried her face in the damp fabric of his shirt as he wrapped his arms around her. She took a shuddering breath and cried out her fear and sorrow and doubt.

Although Jasmine had hardly noticed there was, in fact, a massive amethyst dragon half-buried in the dunes. When Zeean had finished freeing it from its’ sandy prison, they all went to work setting up tents to rest for the night. While everyone was occupied, Jasmine approached Zeean, and drew her away from the others.

“I am sorry for what I said, Zeean,” she said awkwardly. Apologies were like speaking a language she hardly knew. “I did not mean it.”

Zeean smiled tightly. “You did. And perhaps you were right to say so. There is not a day that passes where I do not regret the decision we made that night.”

Jasmine reached out and fiercely gripped her arm. “But you righted what was wrong. My words… were cruel.”

“I hope that we did,” Zeean said softly. “And I owe you an apology. Had you given up as I had hoped, we would have left Lief and Barda for dead.”

“But we have not,” Jasmine glanced to where Lief was grinning broadly as Marilen spoke to him. She had been given the happier time she sought, Jasmine thought fondly. She turned back to Zeean. “That is all that matters now.”

Night fell, and Jasmine sat between Lief and Barda in a gauzy Toran tent. Zeean had told them all that had happened since the storm, and Lief had hardly let go of Jasmine’s hand since. In the tent, they had told her of the horrors they had seen on The Lady Luck.

“That poor girl,” Jasmine said, appalled. Lief squeezed her hand.

“She saved us in the end, I think,” Barda said. “It was her voice that warned us to flee.”

“Did you really never once believe we might be dead?” Lief asked, leaning heavily upon her shoulder.

“Never,” Jasmine said firmly, and dearly hoped she was telling the truth. “I knew you were alive, and so you are.”

Barda tired face split into a grin.

“But— how did you know?” Lief half-whispered.

She met his shadowed eyes. “Because I would have felt it in my heart if you were not.”

Barda rose and clasped her shoulder. “It seems I have eaten nothing for ten days, and I intend to make up for lost time. I do not know what sort of delicious thing Manus is cooking over the fire, but I will be sure to bring some back.”

Lief watched him go, and then turned to Jasmine, gazing at her face as if he was trying to commit it to memory.

“We need each other, do we not?” He said slowly. “The same way we need food and water and air. I swear to never again leave you.”

She tightened her grip on him with one hand, and reached out to cup his face with the other. “I will never again let you fall.”

She knew their journey was far from over, but all she needed in that moment was just to hold him.