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Ivaan was riding in the middle, clutching tightly on to the man’s lean frame, his eyes looking at the back of his golden-brown head. Jo’s arms were wrapped around his waist, and he felt like a worm in a coccoon, encased between two warm bodies. He tried asking them the questions that were plaguing his mind, but they were riding much too fast for either of them to catch his words.
In the garden, meanwhile, army chief Sveva Umberto was giving instructions to the men co-army chief Oroszlan had gathered. She was the first female army chief in Vasiona’s documented history, and a thousand times more competent than her male predecessors. She wore her hair in a high braid almost at the top of her head, which lurked on her long neck like a threatening whip.
She divided the twenty men into five groups of four. Four of the groups had already gone after receiving their instructions, and she was telling the last group where to go, when she spotted one of the soldiers’ eyes fixed where they shouldn’t be. The most frightening thing about Sveva Umberto was that she knew each and every man by name.
“Wyman Dwight, am I clear?”
“Huh?” The frightened chap looked up from admiring Sveva Umberto’s perfect breasts.
As quick as a striking snake, Sveva was beside Wyman Dwight, her cold dagger pressed against his cheek. “Where were you looking, Dwight, when I was giving instructions?”
“Then you must have listened to what I said.”
The soldier nodded reluctantly.
“Tell me, Dwight- where does your group have to go?”
Dwight took a chance. “The forest, Madam.”
“Ah, the forest, is it?”
Before Dwight could answer, Sveva had stuck her dagger into his eyeballs. Blood gushed out of the once gray-blue eyes, and the blinded Wyman Dwight let out a scream that shook the very hills. “I need a replacement, Oroszlan,” she said, calmly wiping her dagger on the side of her olive green snakeskin pants.
Ivaan was dismounting from the stag on the same low pavement he’d first entered this strange kingdom through, just after Sveva herself had set out with Oroszlan to look for him.
“Now tell me everything.”
“You have to hurry, Ivaan. The soldiers might be here any moment.”
“No,” he replied, crossing his arms over his chest. “I’m not going until I know what’s going on here.” Ivaan had never imagined he’d say something like that. He’d been wanting to get out since the moment he’d arrived in this parallel dimension, and now he was risking his chance to leave to know the story of people he’d met that very night. He turned towards the man. “Who are you and why did you save me?”
“Way to thank your saviour. Should I take you back to the queen, dear boy?” He smiled a crooked smile, one that’d have made the girls in his school go nuts.
“He’s my brother, Freyden,” Jo replied.
“Frey, please,” he stuck out his hand. Ivaan shook it. It was firm and warm.
“Hey, your voice is back,” Ivaan said stupidly.
“Thanks. I hadn’t noticed that.”
“Why was the queen afraid of you? Why did you lose your voice? Why did she call it your ‘weapon’? Why-”
“A quizzer, this one is. You tell him everything, Joaquina, while I park the stag,” Frey said and winked at Jo.
“Do not call me by that idiotic name, Frey,” Jo said, glaring daggers at her brother. “Especially-” she began, but stopped herself. Frey, smirking, went to ‘park the stag.’
As soon as Frey was out of sight, Ivaan burst into laughter. “Joaquina, seriously?”
“Do you want to hear the story or not? We don’t have much time.”
“Okay, okay, sorry- Joaquina,” he replied, little laughs following his burst like aftershocks following an earthquake.
“So, Ivanovich, let’s begin. Ten years before I was born, Queen Auttaminen gave birth to my insufferable brother, Freyden. Turned out he had a special ability which none of my parents had- mental dominance. Also called charmspeak, or persuasion. In the early years it was very weak, but when he reached adolescence, Freyden persuaded dad to let him go out with a girl who was not from a royal family. That was when my mother began to understand what Frey’s power meant for her reign over the kingdom. She had my father secretly assassinated and exiled Frey into the woods by forging a fake will that expressed my father’s desire to have Frey exiled and never to use his power again. Frey went, but on one condition- that my mother would stop the sacrifices by the Septdecennial, which happens to be this year. Otherwise, he’d come back and use his power to take the kingdom for himself. If she did keep her end of the bargain, he’d never bother her again. That was why he came here today. He learnt from the guards by using his charmspeak that the queen was performing the sacrifice, had imprisoned her daughter and planned to offer her as a ‘second helping’ to the Kakopnevma. So, he rescued me and I told him about you, and well, here we are.”
“But why did he lose his voice?”
“I’m guessing that mother injected him with Phrenophonis when she grabbed his hand, the only substance which can mute his voice.”
“Jo, hurry!” Frey called out. “Elaphi’s getting nervous, and that means the soldiers are only a mile or so away.”
“Okay!” She called back. She turned to Ivaan.
“I guess this is it,” said Ivaan. “Thanks for saving my life- twice.”
“I’m gonna miss you, Ivanovich.”
“Me too. Goodbye, Jo.”
“Goodbye, Ivaan.” He was about to step into that shimmery spot in the pavement when Jo pulled him into a hug. He hugged her back, the tears coming. Then, without any warning, she grabbed his lips with hers. Ivaan hesitated for a second-but only a second-and then kissed her back, relishing her soft, warm mouth. Her body curved into his. Her fingers traced gentle circles on the bare strip of skin above his collar, his right arm around her waist, his left entangled in her strawberry-blond hair. Passionate molten lava filled Ivaan’s body. They finally pulled away, still so close they were whispering into each other’s mouths.
“I love you, Ivaan.”
“That’s kind of obvious now, isn’t it?” He said and let out a little laugh. Jo chuckled. “Why don’t you come with me? You can bring Freyden too, if you want. Your mom’s an asshole, anyway.”
Jo smiled, making Ivaan’s heart flutter again. “I’d love to come with you, Ivaan but…”
Jo sighed. “But I’d live a cursed half-life and die of some disease in a few years. That’s what happens to people who migrate out of their own universe into another.” Both of them burst into tears.
“I’ll always love you, Jo.”
They gave each other one last salty kiss before Ivaan stepped into that shimmering pool, holding on to Jo’s hand until his fingertips disappeared.
Author’s note: And that marks the end of the spectacular Through the Woods series. I had a lot of fun writing it, and hope you guys enjoyed it as much. It stretched over almost six months, so kudos to all those who’ve had the patience to stick with it all this while. Here’s to many more fantastic stories.