“Oh, Ben,” she half sobbed, half laughed.

I checked my father for a reaction. His smile had broadened, and he was eyeing my mother in amusement.

“It seems that your mother is not going to give River the tough time that I gave Caleb,” he said to me.

“Why would I give River a tough time?” my mother shot back. “I couldn’t imagine a better match for our son.” Her green eyes gazed into mine. “I’ve seen how much she is willing to sacrifice for you. She loves you, truly, Ben.”

I nodded, even as my throat tightened a little. “I know she does,” I managed. “As I love her.”

My mother drew away to allow my father to approach. He planted his hands on my shoulders and looked me straight in the eye, still a hint of amusement playing across his face. I didn’t get the impression that any of this had come as a surprise to him at all.

“So… you think you’re ready for married life, huh, son?”

I grinned. “I’m ready for any life with River.”

He nodded approvingly. “I can see that.” He withdrew his hands and stood up straight, looking down at me as I remained seated. “Well, I may not break out in tears like your mother, but trust that I’m just as thrilled as her. River is a strong, courageous young woman. A woman deserving of a Novak… And I recognize happiness in my children when I see it.”

My mother slipped her arm around my father’s waist, resting her head against him as she looked down at me, still glowing. “With you married, that will mean both of my babies have flown from the nest… both around the ripe old age of eighteen.”

“The same age you got married,” I reminded her.

She nodded. “Guess it runs in the family.”

“You know, it’s a funny coincidence,” my father said thoughtfully, changing the subject. He and my mom retook their seats. “You know what Jeriad was just in here talking to us about?”

“What?” I asked, leaning forward.

“He was just telling us that in recent weeks, a number of dragons have proposed to their girlfriends. And while we were away, the dragons started to discuss wedding arrangements.” He paused. “First, how soon do you want to get married?”

I hadn’t thought about a date. “Uh… I haven’t discussed it with River yet… as you can imagine.” I smirked. “We haven’t exactly been rich with time. But if it was up to me, it would be as soon as possible.”

My father smiled, and stroked his jaw. “Well, back to the dragons… They all wish to return to their home country to get married, The Hearthlands. Now, I don’t know how you feel about a joint wedding, and I’ve never been to The Hearthlands myself so I don’t know what it’s like, but from what Rose has told us it’s quite a magnificent place. The dragons plan to return as early as tomorrow with their fiancées, and as I understand it, the grand wedding will take place a couple of days after that.”

My mind lit up with excitement. A wedding in The Hearthlands. That sounded pretty epic. I imagined that River would be thrilled at the idea. “Let me talk to her,” I said, jumping from my seat. “I’ll let you know.”

“Yes,” my mom added, “Because if we are going to tag along, we have a lot of arrangements to make in a very short time.” She turned to my father. “We’ll also need to be sure Jeriad doesn’t mind, though I can’t imagine he’d object.”

I left the room and was about to rush straight for River’s door when I paused. Wait, not yet. I’m not ready.

As my parents came out of the study and began conversing with Jeriad again, I told them, “I forgot that there’s something I need to do first.”

With that, I hurried back out of the apartment. I wanted to do things in a little more orthodox fashion this time… and that would involve seeking out the best jeweler our island had to offer: Corrine.

River

My eyelids felt like lead as they lifted. I stretched out, expecting to feel Ben next to me, but he wasn’t. I got out of bed and, after brushing my teeth and sweeping my hair into a ponytail, I left the room and wandered through the apartment. It appeared empty. I padded into the kitchen to get some water and munch on an apple. I noticed a note on the table:

“Come outside.”

Is that Ben’s handwriting? I wasn’t sure if I had ever seen his real handwriting. The last note he’d left me had been written with Shadow’s paw.

I finished my apple quickly and walked outside the front door. On the doorstep was another note, this time drawn with chalk.

“Keep going.”

Next to the writing was an arrow, pointing to the elevator.

Frowning, I stepped inside the elevator and descended to the ground. Here, yet another arrow had been drawn into the soil, pointing to my right.

Rather amused by now, I began wandering through the forest, keeping my eyes on the ground for the next direction. Every few yards, there was an arrow pointing ahead, reassuring me that I had not lost this mysterious trail.

I soon realized that I was heading toward the mountains. The trees began to thin, and I neared the edge of the forest. Soon I had arrived in the large clearing in front of the main entrance to the Black Heights. My ever-conscientious sign-drawer had left more arrows, leading me diagonally across the clearing to the stone steps that led up the mountainside. I mounted them and climbed swiftly. By the time I reached the top of the stairs and staggered forward onto a grassy plain, the muscles in my legs were aching. It was times like this when I became aware that half of me was still very much human.

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