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Rock Solid Heart

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"I would have expected you to be more upset," Tarabas said, which possibly wasn't exactly the most tactful or smartest thing he could have said, but then, when Rimualdo had gotten turned into Fiodor, he'd done Tarabas several good turns.

Tarabas figured it would only be fair to return the favor.

"Well," Fantaghiro said, lifting her head, which told Tarabas that she was, in fact, more upset than she cared to show. "It's always something, isn't it? First, he gets beguiled by the Dark Witch and forgets even my name. Next, he is turned into a statue." Tarabas winced; she didn't appear to see. "After that, he gets turned into some evil wizard's servant."

"How irresponsible and inconsiderate of him." Tarabas comforted himself with the knowledge that he hadn't, in fact, set out to turn Rimualdo into a statue. It had merely been an accident.

"No matter what happens, I know that I will always love him," Fantaghiro said. The statement might have stung more if she hadn't added, "Just like I know that I will always love you."

"I'd rather have half your heart than no part of it at all." Tarabas knew he'd meant it at the time. He still did, even if lately, he'd begun to wonder if perhaps his own half wasn't as wholly hers as he had believed it to be. Like her heart hadn't turned out to belong as completely to Romualdo as she had believed it to, for a long time.

"I'll keep him safe," he promised. "For you."

"Yes," she said. "Now go."

 

"It's quite clever, really," Tarabas told Romualdo, who (he realized after a moment's reflection) probably wasn't in the best position to appreciate the elegance of this particular curse.

On the other hand, perhaps if Tarabas educated him a little bit in the workings of magic, Romualdo might not get snared again so easily next time.

"True love's kiss has always been the most powerful of counterspells. In making you allergic to Fantaghiro, it has become a great deal more difficult to free you from the curse."

"I believe it was your kiss that freed me, once," Romualdo said. His expression was unreadable - or at least, it seemed so to Tarabas. Fear and love were emotions he had learned to recognize by now, and even experienced himself. Anything beyond that was ... trickier.

Human emotions were quite complicated, on occasion.

"Yes," Tarabas said, not sure of where Romualdo was going. "Because it was my magic that had turned you to stone, only my kiss had the power to revive you."

"But you kissed Fantaghiro," Romualdo said. "Not me."

Actually, the kiss he had given Fantaghiro had lost its power before she had been able to reach Romualdo. Instead, Romualdo had been freed by a kiss he had bestowed on Esmeralda.

Human kisses were quite complicated, too, on occasion.

"Yes," Tarabas said.

 

Romualdo stared at the collection of vegetables with another unreadable expression.

"You planned on making vegetable soup?"

"Half of them will be our ears and eyes," Tarabas said. "The other half, our evening meal."

Romualdo's lips quirked. "How do you choose?"

"There's no choice," Tarabas said, separating the supplies in two about even piles. "I just pick one at random. What does it matter, anyway?"

Romualdo sighed. "I don't think I'll be very hungry tonight."

Tarabas rather thought he would be, if he insisted on skipping dinner.

 

"You're acting like a fool," Tarabas said, on the third night since they'd left the castle, and the second night Romualdo had passed on dinner, glancing at the gnomes Tarabas had created.

They were good gnomes - dependable, reasonably clever and eager to help. They were aware he had created them, of course, and aware that he might undo what he had done at any time.

Still, Tarabas hardly thought that eating the material they had been fashioned from would hurt their sensibilities in any way. Assuming they had any sensibilities to begin with.

"Kiss me," Romualdo said, which was such a complete non sequitur Tarabas wasn't quite sure if he'd heard correctly. "Kiss me while you think of Fantaghiro."

Tarabas remembered Fantaghiro telling him she'd be thinking of Romualdo while she kissed him.

"That could do it, right?" Romualdo pressed. "I know your love for her is a true one."

One of the mushroom gnomes whispered something to one of the potato gnomes. They both giggled.

"It doesn't work like that," Tarabas said curtly, hoping that would settle the matter.

"But - " Romualdo said, looking stubborn. (Another emotion Tarabas had become familiar with by now. One of Fantaghiro's favorite ones, even if Romualdo showed it every now and then as well.)

"No," Tarabas said. It would not be considered cruel, probably - not when Romualdo himself had asked for it. Still, it would leave a bad taste in his mouth, to kiss Romualdo in that manner.

Besides, he was almost completely sure it wouldn't accomplish anything.

 

After five days of traveling, Tarabas worried he might be beginning to experience an emotion he had thus far only seen on the face of others. Its name was despair.

Romualdo was still sticking to bread and cheese, steering clear of the vegetable soup. Tarabas considered pointing out that cows were alive, too - and that he might as easily animate a grain of wheat as a potato. (Well, no, actually - it would be slightly more difficult due to its size. Hardly impossible, though.)

"I often wondered," he said, instead, "do you resent me?"

"For what?" Romualdo asked.

Turning you to stone might be one reason. Then again, Tarabas didn't resent Romualdo for shooting him. Doing so had likely saved Fantaghiro's life. "Her love."

Romualdo shook his head. "She does not love me any less in loving you. And I know your magic may protect her where my sword alone might not be enough."

"How very practical of you," Tarabas said.

"And you?" Romualdo turned to look at the fire.

"Presumably, your sword may protect her where my magic alone might not be enough," Tarabas said. "I need his protection," Fantaghiro had said, once, speaking of Romualdo.

"You don't really believe that."

Tarabas opened his mouth to say that no, he didn't, then reconsidered. Sometimes, tact and discretion were the better options.

Or so Cataldo had told him. Tarabas had yet to see any evidence of this theory.

"I can see why she loves you," he said. "You possess many admirable qualities."

"Careful," Romualdo said. "You might make me blush."

"I'm not mocking you," Tarabas said. "My words are entirely sincere, I promise you."

"Then kiss me," Romualdo said. It sounded more like a challenge than an invitation.

"To break the curse?" Tarabas shook his head. "No."

"Because you want to," Romualdo said. "No more reason than that should be called for."

"I ... " Tarabas realized he did want to. "What of Fantaghiro?"

"You have kissed her already," Romualdo said. "I think it's my turn to be kissed now."

It didn't, Tarabas considered, sound like an unreasonable argument.

 

"So, how will we know if the curse is lifted?" Romualdo asked sleepily.

One of the carrot gnomes was still merrily snoring away. Loudly. Her companions slept more quietly, aside from the three mushroom gnomes who were standing guard - or so Tarabas hoped.

"We won't," he said. "Until we return."

"Soon, then," Romualdo said.

"We could leave in five minutes," Tarabas said. "Or ... we could wait. A few more hours, until the sun has fully risen." He was comfortable, he realized; comfortable and pleasantly warm.

"A few more hours," Romualdo agreed.