Disclaimer: All recognizable characters are the creative property of Emily Rodda.
Lief was beyond worried, his face marred with emotion. He instinctively brushed his fingers over the Amethyst on the Belt of Deltora, attempting to sooth his mind. Distressing news from the representative of Raladin about the recent crop failures, despite the Four Sisters' defeat, concerned the young king and the circle of confidants that were seated around him. Lief was also slightly surprised that the Ralads had decided to send Manus to plead their case, but was nonetheless somewhat happy to see an old friend.
"How much food does Raladin have in reserve?" asked Jasmine, Lief's newly-wedded wife and queen consort, her long, black hair flaring behind her as wild as the day he met her. Filli and Kree chattered noiselessly to one another on her shoulder, both clearly unfazed by the current situation.
Seeing the question was directed at him, Manus answered gravely, "Not much, I fear it is not enough to last us through this upcoming winter."
Upon hearing this, Lief's anxiety increased tenfold, and glancing at the faces of Jasmine, Barda, Doom and Sharn, he could tell they were just as worried. After a tense moment of silence, Lief spoke, "What can we do to help, Manus?"
"The Council of Elders would like to speak to you personally about the matter as soon as possible, Lief," Manus replied. "We realize other parts of Deltora are also still recovering from the aftermath of recent events and may not be able to supply food to us at their expense, but the Elders still wish to discuss alternative solutions."
Lief smiled softly at the thoughtfulness of the Ralads, "Of course, tell them I will arrive in Raladin a week from today."
At this, Barda exclaimed, "Lief, you cannot! Have you forgotten the Full Moon Meeting is to be held in Del in less than a fortnight?" Lief's face fell at his friend's reminder of the crucial event. He knew of the importance of this particular Full Moon Meeting concerning the possible opening of relations to lands beyond Deltora's borders. But what of the Ralads, he thought, surely they need me now more than anyone at that meeting would? It was moments like this that made Lief hate being king, having to choose between his people was not a choice he liked to make.
"Then I will go in his place."
To the surprise of everyone in the room, it was Jasmine who had spoken. Manus grinned, "Ah yes, sometimes I forget you and Lief have married already and that we have two rulers." Jasmine smiled weakly, she herself was still not used to the idea of being married to the king, not that she was complaining.
Lief, on the other hand, was much less joyful at the prospect of Jasmine leaving, if only for a few weeks. It had been a while since the two had been apart; Lief had grown accustomed to seeing her almost every second of every day, from waking up beside her beautiful sleeping form to going to bed beside the same sight. Indeed, since their wedding earlier in the spring, Lief and Jasmine had become nearly inseparable.
"No." Lief's voice was resolute and resonated authority, as if daring anyone to challenge him. Of course, if there was anyone who could challenge him consistently, it was Jasmine herself.
"What? Lief, why not?" It was an excellent question. But Lief did not have the luxury of time and inwardly panicked, trying to come up with a reasonable response.
"Because it is too dangerous, Jasmine."
Jasmine was absolutely bewildered by Lief's reply. Doom and Sharn were equally as surprised, only their slightly raised eyebrows bearing hint to the fact. Lief, suddenly aware of the looks he was receiving, grimaced slightly and glared when Barda merely chuckled softly. Finally, Doom asked, "What is so dangerous about this, Lief?"
"The... path from Del to Raladin... still contains traces of the Shadow Lord," Lief replied awkwardly. It was a vague answer, but not entirely untrue, the northern route from Del to the Ruby Territory in which Raladin stood had still not been thoroughly checked by Barda and his guards. Any plans Barda had were suddenly put on hold upon his announcement that his wife, Lindal, was with child back in Broome.
Jasmine rolled her emerald green eyes in a show of defiance, "Lief, you are being ridiculous. This is a simple solution to the issue currently at hand, and still you insist on being difficult!" Surely traces as Lief had said are merely traces, nothing she could not handle on her own; being orphaned in the Forests of Silence at a tender age had made sure of that.
Lief could feel the anger beginning to rise from the pit of his stomach. Even at nineteen years of age, both he and Jasmine had not yet grown out of their fierce adolescent stubbornness. "I said no, Jasmine! I will not allow you to go alone," he said, raising his voice slightly and standing up.
Jasmine was livid at this point; not only was Lief being impossible, but he had absolutely no practical reason behind it! In truth, she had always felt hurt whenever Lief yelled at her. However, she never let the hurt show on her elfin face. Indeed, they had been in multiple arguments the past week, but Jasmine had brushed it off as stress stemming from the upcoming Full Moon Meeting. "I will not be alone, Kree and Filli will accompany me, of course. And Doom and Barda may also come with me," she said, getting up to match Lief's stance and glancing at the big men seated beside her.
"Doom is needed here to help lead the Full Moon Meeting, and have you forgotten Barda is only in Del until the meeting ends? He is due back in Broome immediately after to be with Lindal during her expectancy." At the mention of Barda and Lindal's expected child, Jasmine's face fell and Lief knew he had made a mistake. He and Jasmine had consummated their marriage, both under pressure to produce an heir to the Belt of Deltora as quickly as possible; however, despite any further attempts, she had remained nulliparous, the source of much of their fighting recently. Lief knew the disappointments were felt by Jasmine the most, for she felt as if she were failing in her part in helping the kingdom.
A heavy silence followed as Jasmine refused to answer, with the others in the room looking awkwardly between the feuding couple. Fully aware of Jasmine's sad glare, Lief quickly glanced away, opting instead to study the laces of his boots.
Having kept quiet through the entire ordeal, Sharn spoke softly breaking the tension in the room, "I am sure Jasmine will be just fine, Lief. Besides, this would be an opportune moment for her to experience how to deal with issues as queen firsthand, and she can take care of herself, can you not, dear?" The raven-haired girl threw Sharn a grateful glance, while Lief slowly took in his mother's words.
Finally, after several more moments of tense silence, the young king spoke again, albeit softly. "I know you can take care of yourself, Jasmine," he whispered. At this, Jasmine raised her chin slightly in indignation, but did not interrupt. "But, I would never forgive myself if something happened to you and I was not there to protect you."
Jasmine bit her lip and threw her head back, clearly not expecting such a tender response from Lief, "I never asked you to protect me."
The boy smiled softly at the fiery defiance and determination she exhibited, the same traits he had come to love. "Promise me you will come back safe."
Jasmine's remaining anger faltered at his change in topic. "You are letting me go?" At Lief's sheepish nod, she quickly went to embrace him and stayed in his arms for a moment. "I promise, Lief," she whispered. His smile widened as he returned the embrace and held onto her small, warm body, cherishing the moment as he knew it would be a few weeks before he got to have another.
Unbeknownst to the two of them, the other four people in the room breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Following Jasmine's departure on her journey to Raladin, the days crept by agonizingly slowly for the king. Lief did not deny it: even only hours after she had left, he had missed his wife. His only slight comfort in her absence was that the Full Moon Meeting had been somewhat of a success, and Deltora would sooner or later once again enjoy the flourish of foreign trade.
True to his word, Barda had left for Broome immediately following the meeting, anxious to be back with his now heavily pregnant wife. With both of his closest companions away, the young king had felt an overwhelming sense of loneliness that he had not experienced for many years. No longer could Lief hear the boisterous deep laugh of Barda, nor enjoy trivial conversation with the big man. No longer could Lief wake up to the refreshing scent of Jasmine's long black hair which intoxicated him to no end. He missed her bright green eyes sorely, no longer able to admire the fiery passion behind them, and most of all, he missed her small loving smile that she reserved just for him.
Several weeks had passed, and despite the few simple messages exchanged through Kree between him and Jasmine, it could not fill the void he felt. As he sat in the Palace Study, endlessly signing inconsequential documents bearing trivial matters, Lief realized with a small pang of guilt that he missed Jasmine more than Barda. It is only natural, he thought with a slight laugh as he dismissed the guilt, after all, I did not marry Barda.
He sighed heavily as the boredom of his current task hit him full force and glanced at the intricately carved wooden door, hoping against hope Jasmine would burst in any moment and drag him outside to the Palace Gardens for some fresh air. It always amused him when she did that, with absolutely no regard to whether whatever he was working on was important or not. Lief knew without a doubt if he had not met Jasmine, his skin would soon be as pale white as the marble floor from the lack of sun.
Lief knew the despondency he felt reflected on his interactions with Doom and his mother. He spoke little to anyone, and only when necessary. A few nights ago, Doom had quipped, "The way you have been acting, Lief, one would think you were mourning her death!" Lief had flinched slightly, and Doom quickly murmured his apologies and walked away. The young king knew Jasmine's father had not truly meant any form of omen, but Lief soon found himself praying to Adin she was alright, while anxiously awaiting her next letter as confirmation.
As Lief groaned again at the load of documents sitting on his desk, he glanced out the window at the afternoon sun. Jasmine had said in her last letter that she would be returning sometime tonight before supper. The message had been short and spoke nothing of the result of her visit to Raladin, but Lief could hardly bring himself to care; he eagerly awaited the return of his wife.
Remembering he had promised to have luncheon with his mother, he slowly got up and made his way to the Dining Room. He was not surprised to see Sharn already there, waiting patiently with a variety of delicious foods already set out on the table. Lief greeted her halfheartedly and took his seat, grabbing a handful of small red berries from a bowl. He absently noted that they were Jasmine's favorite.
"I would have expected you to be more cheerful today, Lief," his mother said. "After all, Jasmine will be coming home in a few hours." At this, Lief frowned slightly and dropped his head.
"I do not believe Jasmine has ever considered this Palace home," he whispered softly. Indeed, Jasmine had particularly despised the grey walls of the grand building at first. Despite her agreeing to marry him sometime later, it was this abhorrence that grew into a deep fear for Lief; a fear that the wild girl may suddenly decide she would rather return to her true home in the trees than continue living in the Palace with him.
Sharn smiled knowingly and reached for a small biscuit, "She cares deeply for you, surely you know that."
To her surprise, her son suddenly grinned back, "Yes, I know, as do I. It is just... I have missed her greatly, mother."
Sharn nodded. "We all know that, dear, you have not reminded us enough with your constant melancholy," she added sarcastically referring to Doom and herself. "But perhaps this time apart will have been good for the two of you."
Lief looked at her questioningly; he could not imagine any scenario in which being apart from Jasmine would be a good thing.
"You have had many disagreements with her before she left, correct?" Sharn continued. "Perhaps being separated for a while will have enabled you both to appreciate the other more." Lief looked down once again, his face burning with shame. He was well aware of how he and Jasmine had yelled at one another several times, and he had to admit, fighting with her hurt him like nothing else. He cherished Jasmine, but he also knew his own hotheadedness tended to clash with her stubbornness.
The two continued to eat in comfortable silence with Sharn leaving her son to sort out his own thoughts. Lief soon decided that his mother had been right, having some time apart from Jasmine had taught him not to take her for granted. If he had been such an emotional wreck with her gone a few weeks, he shuddered to think what would happen if she ever truly left like he feared.
Lief returned to his study after the meal and continued on his laborious task. As promised, barely an hour before the supper bell rang, a familiar cawing alerted Lief from the frantic scribbling of his name. He turned his head toward the window and almost cried out in happiness at seeing the black silhouette of Kree flying towards the Palace.
Lief jumped out of his chair and raced out of the room past several Palace workers who looked at him in surprise as he blurred by. For Lief, the sight of one of Jasmine's most faithful companions meant only one thing: his flower had indeed come home.