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The thirty-fifth day of the second month, in the year one thousand, two hundred, and twenty-five.
High on a snowy peak, far out of catapult range, three Thitha dragons spread their wings to catch the frigid air like ship sails, slowing their descent with quick, strong beats of blue and silver scales. The darkness swirled around them thick as froth, making them invisible to the army in the valley below. Despite their graceful flight, their reptilian bodies struck the ground with enough force to rattle tree branches and send snowy rubble cascading down the steep slope. Their scales protected them from the impact, and would help to defend them against an assault by the three dragons before them if the need arose.
The six Thithay faced off, their hisses of distain sending plumes of steam into the night. To human eyes, the dragons would be indistinguishable from each other even in daylight; all had monstrous, serpentine bodies with wide, viperous heads and overly long fangs. Horns like short tusks lined the ridges of their backs, beginning just behind the dragons’ heads and ending at the tips of their writhing tails. But the southern Thithay and the western Thithay had no uncertainty about which clan they addressed. To them, the difference was as great as that between human Eredelians and Southern Trantians.
Four of the Thithay waited on either side and to the rear of their Clan Chiefs, ready for combat but not antagonistic; none of them wished to risk harm to itself by challenging a rival clan.
“Now you come?” the waiting Chief asked with loathing.
“The Kergulenites brought news to us. They say that you intend to betray us all—that you plan to give the Kergulenite Stone to the Harans. Of course, we assured them that you would never do such a thing.”
“Would we not?” the Southern Chief responded, lowering its head. It took one step back, its stance becoming even more defensive.
Despite the temptation, the Western Chief chose not to move closer. “No, you would not. A Thitha would never break a covenant.”
The Southern Chief roared in frustration and anger, the blast echoing off distant mountainsides. “The covenant is already broken! The Kergulenites broke it when they crossed the border and killed our clan members. We owe them nothing.”
“And what about us?” the Western Chief demanded, his clawed foot tearing up a swath of snow and rock with a horrible grinding noise. “Do you owe us nothing? The Stone belongs to all of us.”
“And so does the responsibility of keeping it safe!” The Southern Chief spat a wad of acid, and the glowing orange mass soared over the side of the mountain to land on a span of bare rock. The acid smoked for a moment before fading to a dull gray, hardening into a lump of minerals indistinguishable from the stone around it. “Yet we have born the burden for hundreds of years, and with no help from you. Where were you when the Kergulenites hunted my grandparents? Where were you when those mongrels cut my family’s bodies and turned them into bowstrings and armored jackets? Where were you when the Haran Chief offered to rid us of those oath-breaking foot-lickers in exchange for nothing more than a rock? You were nowhere to be found.”
“That is no cause to give up the Stone! I understand your wrath, but direct it at those who deserve it! The Kergulenite King took measures against the poachers, even if it was too little too late. Kill the offenders, not the entire nation.”
The Southern Chief spat again, this time aiming for the ground near the Western Chief’s deadly claws. The acid quickly burned through the snow and sparse debris before resting against the rock. “The Kergulenites have become weak, undisciplined. Many of them have forgotten the ways of the forest and no longer have any connection to the Stone.”
“Is that cause to give our Stone to those foul Harans?”
“Yes,” the Southern Chief said somberly. “The Haran Chief has more connection to the Stone than the Kergulenite King does. He is an Alonca.”
The Western Chief drew back in surprise, as did his escorts. “An Alonca? Are you sure?”
“Yes. And he has Power.”
After considering this for a few moments, the Western Chief looked down the rocky mountainside to the forest below. The Haran army crowded the bottom of the valley and sloshed up the lower sides of the mountains, their bonfires blazing indiscreetly among tree stumps and piles of refuse. It seemed impossible that thousands of men could have survived the trek through the swamps of southeastern Kergulen and lived to set foot in Dragon Country. So many had perished on the journey northward, devoured by predators and carnivorous trees, or lost to quicksand, deadly insects, and false trails. Now, cold and malnutrition continued to take their lives, reducing their numbers daily until only the strongest survived, and they, weakening. Finally, the Western Chief said, “If the Haran Chief gathers all of the Stones, he will be unstoppable. He will not be content with the southern kingdoms—Kergulen will fall. If Kergulen falls, so will the Thithay. Our lives are too closely tied to the forest for us to survive this madness.”
“When Kergulen falls,” the Southern Chief corrected. “You will fall, but we will be rulers.”
Disturbed by the confidence in the Southern Chief’s statement, the Western Chief looked down at the Haran army for a second time. The men were doomed to death, and almost certainly knew that they would never see the southern world again—even if their Chief succeeded in taking possession of the Stone, they wouldn’t survive the journey south—and yet as the Western Chief watched, a cheer went up among the humans. It started at the near end of the valley, but quickly spread to the west and south, thousands of men raising their arms in triumph and shouting at the top of their lungs. With the speed of a viper’s strike, the Western Chief spun back to his counterpart, teeth bared in threat of an attack. “Where is this Haran Thief?” he demanded with distain. “Where is he that I may pull out his entrails and add his skull to the trees outside my cave?”
“He is gone, out of your reach. He rides the wind on the back of my offspring.”
“Your clan will pay for this treachery,” the Western Chief promised. “For now we have other work, but we will return, and when we do, we will rend you tail from snout and wing from limb.” Without giving the Southern Chief time to respond, the Western Chief leapt toward the lightening sky, stirring ice crystals into the air with its churning wings. Its companions followed in its wake, leaving their enemies to tear up the snow in agitation.
After a moment of silent deliberation, the Southern Chief announced, “Our clan has suffered enough already. We will not be here when they return. Let us go down to our new allies. There is more we can do for them. Much more.”
“You de-cluttered,” Ronka acknowledged with a nod of approval. Director Johrn Ziave’s windowless office was lit by a pair of oil lamps, both of which hung over the heavy desk. Shadow nearly swallowed the counter-lined walls, and although the counters still supported stacks of file boxes and loose papers, they had been straightened. The usual knick-knacks and racehorse memorabilia were gone. The desk in front of Ronka was bare but for an inkwell and three very short stacks of paper.
Mr. Ziave gave him a sideways look, clearly thinking the comment was out of character. Not that Ronka hadn’t noticed the mess before, but it was odd for him to give voice to such an observation, and even stranger for him to offer his opinion, even if the opinion was favorable. “The Red Shell is going through some changes, refocusing, you could say. I thought it should start here.”
Ronka ran both hands over the desk’s smooth top, its glossy coating faded by years of rustling papers, and thought about what the director had said. If the Red Shell really was making changes, he might be willing to reconsider.
Johrn Ziave leaned forward, resting his elbow on the desk. He was making a show of nonchalance, but the glean of sweat on his tan-skinned forehead, along with the way he kept pulling his shirt collar away from his own throat, led Ronka to believe that the man’s stress level was much higher than usual. “Ronka, let me be blunt.” He paused to wipe his brow with a handkerchief. “This would be a terrible time for you to resign your position. You’re aware of some of the things that have happened in the past few months; until the Stones are found and safe, we really need agents of your caliber on duty.”
Ronka had expected to hear something like this. He had sent his resignation by sealed letter early that morning, and wasn’t at all surprised when the currier returned with a request for a meeting this afternoon. Regardless of what might have changed, he decided to deliver his prepared speech and see what happened. “Mr. Ziave, I respect your need for competent employees, and indeed I do understand some of the world’s recent events. But I don’t think there’s anything I can do about it. I simply can’t bring myself to gather insignificant information on one more pompous lord. I don’t give a horse’s butt which lady is cheating on which lord with which nephew’s Master of Arms, and I don’t think anyone else should, either.” He felt himself crack a smile. It felt so good to say it out loud, and not just in front of his bedroom mirror.
Mr. Ziave looked as though he had been struck across the face. “Is that all you think we do here?”
“Mr. Ziave,” Ronka said in a disapproving tone. “I am a spy, remember? I know very well what you do here. I realize there are things I don’t know about, but can you honestly tell me you don’t put ninety percent of your resources into Trantian politics?”
Johrn’s jaw tightened, and Ronka was glad that although the director was larger than he was, he was also behind his desk, and surely not as quick-footed. But despite his apparent anger, Johrn kept his voice level. “As I mentioned, we are making some changes around here. For one, we’re no longer wasting our time and resources on such things. We have plenty of other things to do.”
“Such as?” Ronka asked, hoping the answer would satisfy his need for legitimate work.
“Such as figuring out which lords, soldiers, and servants are working for the enemy, for one. Clearly we have been compromised. We’ve made some good progress, but I’m afraid I believe we have a lot more traitors in our midst. We’ve been reviewing reports from the last year, and we’ve found some telling anomalies.”
Ronka smiled, leaning forward to rest his arms on the desk. “That sounds like a good time. How can I help?”
Rima Moorovi sighed at the nearby rumbling of thunder. The air had cooled dramatically while she slept and the humidity had risen, making her dark, Banlunder skin feel clammy. During the night, she and her companions had moved into the tents out of respect for the storm, which currently gusted through the Maple grove to pound the waterproofed fabric, and flattened the grass out where the trees didn’t offer protection. From where she sat in front of their tent’s small, screened window, Rima couldn’t see the ocean or the other tents where Kib and Prince Arisan presumably still rested; there was nothing but rain, grass, trees, and more rain.
“Even with our coats, I can’t see getting all the way to town without being soaked,” she grumbled loudly to be heard over the roar. “The wind is blowing it at an angle.” The rest of their team had gone to town for the night, and now Rima wished they had gone with them. Lightning brightened the gloomy morning for a second, and then thunder cracked overhead so forcefully that Rima flinched. Another day she might have welcomed the downpour, but she was weary and sore, her feet itched, and her bulky Trantian-style dress would be more irritating than ever when it got wet.
“It has to stop eventually,” Jailirohwen Tonx said from where he sat in the back of the tent, leaning against some baggage. Three days of beard growth and swelling from injuries disguised his face so well that his fine, fair features were indistinct. The semi-circular scar on his forehead still begged for notice, but his eyes (one of them black and blue) were so puffy it was impossible to tell that they were a distinctively pale shade of blue. He looked as bad as Rima felt. She hadn’t seen a mirror since blowing up the Dalcocnerber’s island, but it was a safe bet that the left side of her face was as discolored with bruises as were her left shoulder, ribs, and leg. “For now,” he continued, “we can wait it out. The Harans are not going anywhere; Eredelian prisons are well maintained.”
“I know.” Rima hunched over, resting her elbow on her knee and then cradling her chin in her palm. “I wish I had a new book. The one I brought from the Castle Trant’s library isn’t very exciting compared to real life, and the writer got dragons all wrong.”
“Are you serious?” Jail asked.
Rima sat up and cocked her head at him. She had seen real dragons just the night before, and she was absolutely positive that no book would ever adequately describe their fearsome size and appearance. Certainly no one could measure a dragon’s brutality.
Jail laughed and shook his head. “I keep forgetting that you are not seeing this the same way I am. Here I am, feeling like the most fortunate man on earth because after a few horrible days of fighting, plotting, and worrying about you, I suddenly find myself trapped in a cozy little tent with you and no one else. Just you. I could not imagine a better turn of events.” He gingerly rubbed his hands over his face. “She wants a book,” he said to himself.
Rima’s chest tightened briefly when she considered the implications of Jail’s comments. In spite of her stiff muscles and bruises, she had half convinced herself that certain recent events had been no more than strange dreams. Her memories of them were unclear, but what she did remember was difficult to believe. As she thought back over the past couple of days, she realized that none of it was probable, and none of it was any more wise than it was likely. What was I thinking? “Did all of that really happen?” she asked.
“Having second thoughts?” The faintest tremor of anxiety colored his question.
“No, of course not! It’s just—everything’s a blur, like a sketchy dream with just an occasional clear scene. This morning I feel like I really woke up for the first time in days, and it hurts.” She touched her tender cheekbone to emphasize her statement. “We’re really married?”
“Definitely,” Jail confirmed. “But before we explore that new development any further, I want to hear what happened with you over the past few days. You’ve been busy.”
Rima felt her throat closing up at the thought of sharing her experiences on the Dalcocnerber’s island. The experience came very near the top of her ‘worst events in life history’ list. “You already know the important parts. I don’t want…” she began, but Jail shook his head and held his hand out to her.
“You know as well as I do that you will not be able to let go of it all until you tell someone. As your husband, I would like to think you can talk to me about anything that bothers you.”
Tears of frustration budded at the corners of Rima’s eyes. She knew he was right, but it was all so embarrassing, not to mention traumatizing. She hugged herself, gathering the courage to look her new husband in the eye. It was one thing for him to be familiar with the basics of what had happened, but it would be quite another for her to say it all out loud. With a deep breath, she got to her knees and crawled close enough to take Jail’s hand. “I hadn’t considered the possibility that you would want to hear all my deep, dark secrets,” she mumbled. “I’m not sure I want to hear yours.”
Jail laughed again. “What has you so cranky this morning?”
“What has you so cheerful?” she retorted. Then she muttered, “My feet itch like crazy!” She reached down to scratch, but it only aggravated the skin, resulting in a burning sensation. “I’m sorry. I think my head is too full.”
The Kergulenite prince laughed off her complaints and pulled her back against his chest, wrapping his strong, warm arms around her shoulders and leaning his head down so that his scratchy cheek rested against hers. At his proximity, Rima’s chest contracted again, and she felt a sigh of satisfaction escape her. The itch was gone. In fact, she had a hard time thinking about anything other than kissing. His lips felt so good on her skin…She briefly considered shifting around to kiss his battered face, but she just wasn’t audacious enough. It was too bad—not only was kissing immensely enjoyable, it would save her from having to recount her unpleasant experiences.
Jail waited patiently for her to begin, probably mistaking her hesitancy for anxiety. Finally, when Rima had gathered the pertinent thoughts, she began a brief summary of the past few days, starting with her escape from her room while Jail was busy being punched in the face. She had felt really bad about sneaking around like that, especially when Jail was having such a hard time of it, but she felt she had no choice since he had already forbidden her from going to the Haran camp. Rima briefly explained how she had convinced the thief, Lifel, to let her stay on the island, and that she had impressed him with her ability to resist his destructive magic.
“I thought he was going to destroy you,” Jail said with a tight squeeze. “You knew you would be okay, but I was so mad at you for going and getting yourself killed.”
“I’m sorry,” Rima said, snuggling deeper in response to him. “I knew you’d be mad. I just hoped you would forgive me when you saw that I was right.”
“I thought you were crazy.”
Rima sighed, “I know.”
“A dragon had to tell me that you were sane! I am the one who needs to be forgiven.”
Rima shrugged. “We wouldn’t be sitting here like this if I hadn’t forgiven you for everything, and we certainly wouldn’t be married.”
Jail took a deep breath and exhaled it into her shoulder. Rima’s extraordinary intuition allowed her to understand the truth of every person’s intention, no matter how well the person could lie, but at that moment she couldn’t pinpoint what Jail was feeling. His emotions mixed inside him—some guilt, some anger, a lot of happiness—but there was something else that she couldn’t perceive. The unknown made her quiver, because she had somewhat recently become aware of what the unknown tended to be.
“So, tell me about the island,” Jail said.
Rima tried to give just a brief rendition of her days on the island, but Jail asked detailed questions about everything; he wanted to know the Harans’ customs, how they interacted with Lifel, how they interacted with each other, and her impressions of them in general. While sitting so close to him, it was difficult for her to be unnerved by the things that had happened. “It’s just like I told you before,” she said. “None of the Harans were allowed near Lifel. Not even his harem! I wondered about that, but then I found that the girls did all the cooking and cleaning, so they did have a function. They were very much servants to the men, and didn’t interact with them as far as I could see. It was like Banlund but more extreme.”
“I do not know how you put up with that, growing up,” Jail said, referring to her enslavement in Banlund.
“I ran away, remember?”
Jail laughed softly. “How could I forget?”
“Anyway,” Rima continued, but then she paused as a clap of thunder interrupted her. “Lifel had no leadership skills that I could see. He had been bullying people all his life, and so he got his way. If the Harans really are mounting a full scale war, Lifel was not the commander, or general, or whatever it’s called.” Then she fell silent. The only thing left to share was the assassination, and she had no intention of laying out the details. She didn’t want to admit to touching the foul smelling thief, and especially not to kissing him, even if Jail already knew.
Jail must have realized what he was thinking, because he seemed equally unsettled. He said, “Just tell me whatever you think you need to. I do not think the details will help us, later.”
With relief, Rima thanked him. “Let me just say that it was disgusting. Everything about the situation was disgusting. Lifel was beyond disgusting. He made flags out of the backs of his rivals. He tattooed them with the symbols of their clans, and then tanned their skins.” She shivered. “Stinking, fondling, stupid…I got him to drink a couple glasses of some horrible alcohol, and then…” she took a deep breath, unable to speak the words ‘we went to his bed’. “I tricked him into looking away so I could stab him in the eye. That was the worst part.”
“Afraid he would catch you?”
“That too,” Rima confessed. She felt her lip trembling. “I was afraid he would catch me and kill me. Even worse than that, I was afraid that I might lose my nerve, and he might not even notice what I had tried to do, and he might…” she took another deep breath, willing herself to keep her composure. She continued, “He might consummate our marriage. But I was at least as afraid of succeeding.”
Jail stiffened, and it almost seemed that the storm quieted for a moment.
Of course he didn’t understand! He was a Kergulenite. If she hadn’t been a little girl, he would have killed her when she first made her illegal crossing into Kergulen, and he wouldn’t have felt bad about it, either. She wrenched herself away and turned to face him, lifting her right hand to thrust it before his startled eyes. “I killed a man with this hand!” she growled. “I don’t care that he was evil, and that he would have killed me as readily as he’d have killed a trouble-making prairie wolf. Some of us don’t take it as lightly as you crazy Kergulenites.”
Jail’s good eye remained wide for a long moment at her sudden outburst, and then he cleared his throat, and Rima got the feeling that he was stifling a grin.
“It isn’t funny,” she said, her tone as dangerous as the storm above.
“No,” he agreed, and took the hand she was still holding up. “Killing people is never funny.” Then his grin broke free and he cringed when she smacked his shoulder with her free hand.
“Why are you laughing, then?” she demanded.
“Well, you have this warped, dark idea about us! It is funny! How many people do you think I have killed? Tortured? Seriously!”
“I already said, I don’t want to know your secrets!” Rima hissed.
“Rima! Think about it! Who? If I were going to kill someone, it would have been someone I hated, but you know that did not happen, because you have met every real enemy I ever had. I could do what you did if I needed to, but I do not take it lightly.”
Rima knew he was telling the truth, but still she frowned. “You don’t think I should be upset about it.”
Jail shrugged. “What I think does not matter, in this case. You are upset about it, and so it concerns me. I can only tell you that I am glad you did it, and I am sorry you will have to live with it. I never intended for you to get so close to the situation. You are the one who ran into it. I just hope it does not give you bad dreams.”
Rima thought about that for a second, settling down into a more comfortable position with her legs crossed in front of her. “Huh,” she said when it had sunk in.
“I haven’t had any bad dreams about it. Not yet, at least. That’s odd, for me.”
“Perhaps you are through with nightmares. It would be nice. I almost never get a full night’s sleep when you are around.”
“You can be such a foot licker!” Rima growled, but she felt a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. “Why are you so facetious this morning?”
Jail seemed pleased. “I could ask you again, why are you so cranky? And where do you get words like ‘facetious’?”
“I’m tired and stressed, my feet are driving me crazy, and I got it from Mi’nuh.”
“Soon this will all be over, and you will get all the rest you need,” Jail promised.
“That reminds me,” Rima said. “Are you going to try to take my head off if I happen to bump into you while you’re sleeping? Maybe we should keep separate beds.”
“Not a chance,” he said firmly. “We spent weeks and weeks sleeping beside each other in tents, and I never once hurt you. It will not be any different in a bed.”
Rima wondered if that was true. “We can give it a try,” she allowed.
“You are much too gracious,” Jail said in a dramatically Trantian accent.
“Don’t I know it?” Rima smiled at his affectation.
“Foot sniffer,” Jail teased. “So, may I tell you one of my deep, dark secrets, now?”
It seemed that some sort of creature spun around in Rima’s gut. Jail had just told her he had never killed anyone. What else was there? Surely he wasn’t going to tell her about his past relationships with women! Not now, when she already had so many doubts about how things were going to work out! “Please, don’t! I don’t want to know. Maybe later. Much later.”
Jail lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it. “You do not want to hear how badly I want to kiss you, or how long I have been wanting to do it? ”
Rima felt her mouth drop open. “Oh.”
“Or how difficult it is for me to keep from touching your face?” Jail continued as he reached up to cradle her cheek in his palm. His hand, though warm, felt cool over her blush. She felt like her skin would burn him if her heart didn’t attack him through her ribcage, first. He pulled back far enough to get a clear view of her shadowed face, and winked. “Or how much I have always enjoyed watching you get embarrassed?”
“Hey!” She smacked his shoulder as hard as she could, but he only laughed and leaned close to her, kissing her gently. How had she known him for so long without ever considering such activities? It seemed like such a waste of time. Then again, other—more important—parts of their relationship had been built first. “I love you,” she whispered when Jail sat back to look at her again. He grinned crookedly, and then pulled her tight to his chest and kissed her again, letting his lips give a nonverbal response to her declaration.
“It can be so hard for me to concentrate on work when I am near you,” Jail murmured in her ear. “You are distracting.”
“I didn’t want to work this morning, in the first place,” Rima pointed out, her cheek pressed to his. Thunder rumbled overhead. “You’re the one who had to ask all those questions.”
“I do not want to work any more than you do, but I need to know as much as possible before I go back to the Haran interrogations. I hope your information will help us figure out what is really going on.” He kissed Rima’s ear, which felt nice, but also funny, and sounded incredibly loud.
She giggled and pulled away to look into Jail’s pale eyes. “Or I could go with you, and then you wouldn’t have to figure anything out. It really would make the most sense.”
With a frown, Jail shook his head. “Arisan was right, they would not let you in.”
“They would if you explained things,” Rima said, though of course she couldn’t know that for sure.
Jail shook his head again. “It would be dangerous to tell the Eredelians that you are an Alonca. It would be far too easy for them to categorize you with Lifel.”
“I’m a little girl,” Rima argued gently. “Do you really think they would feel threatened by me?”
“I feel threatened by you all the time,” Jail joked, and she smacked him in the shoulder a third time, right when there was a clap of thunder just east of them. The effect was comical, bringing smiles to both of their faces. “But seriously, I do not want you to come.”
Rima’s smile broadened. “You can’t lie to me, remember? Being married is going to be fun. You most certainly do want me to come.”
Jail froze as the implications of Rima’s statements settled in. “Okay. Part of me wants you to come because you would make questioning much simpler. Also, in general, I feel more at ease when you are around. I was not kidding when I said I sleep better when you are watching my back.”
“But…you think I would be safer out here with Arisan and Kib,” Rima said. “So even though you do want me to come, your decision is to leave me here.”
“Or with Mrind. I thought you would like to visit with Mi’nuh.”
“I would, but I would rather help you.” Her eyes narrowed, and her voice rose when she said, “You can’t keep making decisions for me!” Even as she said it, Rima wondered if it was true. They would be living in Trant, and as her husband he probably did have the legal right to make many of her decisions for her. In Kergulen, Jail’s father hadn’t taken a dictator type position in the household, in fact, he had been respectful of Lily, but Rima suddenly wondered if that was typical of the culture, or if it had been part of the family’s odd mix of social circles. Lily was a princess, after all. Perhaps that accounted for her seemingly equal standing in the house.
Jail stared at her solemnly, watching her thoughts cross her face. “You do not look sure about what you want,” he said.
“It isn’t that,” Rima said with a frown. “I was just wondering…it doesn’t matter. I do want to go with you.”
“All right, then. If they will let you in, you can go. I will have Arisan talk with King Fugasnik about it, first, so they do not try to put you in prison when they see your eyes.”
“Thank you. I really don’t want to go to prison.”
“It would complicate things,” Jail said. “I have never rescued anyone from prison, before.”
“If they try to take me, I’ll just hold on to you so tight they won’t be able to get me off you.”
“So you want them to take me, too?”
Rima smiled. “It would be better than going alone.”
“Well, if that is your plan,” Jail said gravely, “you should practice a little before we go, just in case.”
Without warning, Rima flung herself into him, barely getting her arms wrapped around him before he hit a bedroll with a thud and a grunt. “You are not the only one with bruises,” he complained, but he wasn’t really upset. In fact, he seemed pleased. Rima laughed and tried to sit back up, but he held her tightly, fiercely even, so she hugged him back until her arms got tired. After that, she merely relaxed against his chest.
Eventually, the rain beating on the roof and the rise and fall of Jail’s breathing lulled Rima into a completely relaxed state. In spite of her inhibitions, self doubts, and itchy feet, she felt comforted by Jail’s happiness and the pleasure he took from holding her close. He had concerns, as well, but he was able to push them aside to enjoy the moment.