Voices hummed and murmured across the marketplace. Jasmine casually spoke with the vendors and fellow shoppers. Gathering a gauge of the situation of this city and how her citizens viewed their monarchy. While examining a peach and having a friendly conversation with the stall owner a voice whispered in her ear.
Jasmine’s mind emptied. Fruit tumbled from her hands. Panic seized in her chest. Drained of comprehension, she only had her senses and instinct.
Leave. Now. Escape.
A feeling. A need. But her world froze.
Her breath, shallow. Her heart pumped inside her ears. She blinked rapidly, but no thoughts would form. She gasped as someone softly touched her shoulder. They gently turned her around.
She now faced an adult woman. Brown umber curls pulled back in a short roundtail. Dark skin, a shy lighter than Cayden. Thumb on her lip as if in thought. Scrutinizing black eyes. “Look at you,” she teased under her breath. “A pretty little light-skinned lady.”
Jasmine looked down at herself then back up to the Nobleman.
The woman smiled. “Very good.”
“Miss? Is everything okay? Did ya wanna buy that?”
The woman peered over Jasmine at the vendor. “Of course! She’s an old friend of mine. But I think I struck her dumb.” She giggled. “No worries. I’ll pay for whatever she intended to buy.”
Paper wrinkled and scuffed as three fruits slid into a bag. Jasmine stepped aside as the woman finished her transaction.
The woman draped an arm across Jasmine’s shoulders casually. She shivered and instinctively tried to shift away from her touch. The women tightened her hold and guided her away. She whispered in her ear, “Take these.” She dropped the bag into Jasmine’s hands. Coarse wrinkled brown paper. Solid spherical fruits inside. She gripped it tightly. Her nails punctured the bag and the skin of some fruits beneath before she sent it through the armory stone.
“What? I meant…” then she chuckled, realizing. “Oh, but you can’t think, can you? Was that a natural reaction?”
“Yes. Can’t think,” Jasmine replied. Shallow breathing. Light-headed.
The woman burst out laughing. “Oh this is fun! I want to play with you before turning you in. Maybe they’ll allow me my own Magician.” She paused. “Or maybe I won’t turn you in and you’ll just be my secret. That sounds delightful.”
People milling about. Vendors. Sweets. Shops. Colors. Flowers. Dust. Cobblestone streets. Alleys. Children screaming in glee. Buildings. Wood. Brick. Stone.
“You’re a curious one. Checking out the sights I suppose. I have lots of questions for you when we get inside. Like, what’s yo—”
Something small and high-pitched tumbled into the woman’s legs from behind.
The woman’s arm tugged on Jasmine’s neck briefly as she fell to her knees with a shocked cry. The disturbance triggered Jasmine to flee, twisting away and running.
“Tucker! Val! How many times—! I’m so sorry, Miss. Are y— Oh!”
Urgency. Fear. Focus. React.
The woman’s shoes clicked on the stone street as she gave chase.
A memory of her brother flitted through her mind. “For how long though?” He grinned.
Her feet stopped. But only for a heartbeat.
“What!?” the woman shreaked.
Jasmine burst past people and stalls, tears flying off her face as she ran her heart out.
Brother. Home. Seek safety. Get away. Leave.
She pulled her brother’s Call Stone from the armory, then Mom’s, Tallin’s, Avian’s...
She stumbled, but only changed her pace.
Jasmine went back into her all out run.
Her body seized and she slammed into the road. Her clothes scuffed on dirt and muck. Something tore.
“Who’s she running from?” “Maybe she’s a market thief. Leave her alone.” “Is she okay? Did she trip?” “Young lady, do you need help?”
People whispered and talked. One tried to help her up but her limp form slipped from their grip. A few screamed. A shout for help.
“Excuse me! Let me through.”
That woman’s face came into view. Jasmine was turned onto her back and felt the woman examine her neck and head. She held a hand over Jasmine’s agape mouth.
“What-in-the—” The woman sighed exasperated. A soft palm on her cheek, then light pressure at her sternum. A whispered, “Breathe, child!”
Air flew into her lungs. She coughed and gradually regained her breath.
“There we go, sweetie,” she said soothing. She then addressed the crowd, “Please give us some space. I know this girl. She’ll be fine. I know what to do.”
The sky was its usual golden peach. A few scattered clouds. Tears continued to spill.
“Now be a good girl and stop causing trouble for me, sweetie. We’re going home. Come on. Get up. Careful now. Now walk with me until we get inside.”
The gathering was satisfied. Lost interest. The girl was going home. Everything was fine.
“How can you be clever when you can’t think?” the woman hissed in her ear. “Brother. Reaction. Fear.” Jasmine squeaked, tugging weakly against her grip.
Grey streets. Charcoal scent. Meaningless mass of people. Throbbing ankle. Dread.
“Sit in that chair and stay there until I say so!”
Three steps. She sat. The door slammed. Lock clicked.
Exhausted, Jasmine waited, watching the woman. She sighed, pulled out her hair-tie then ran her fingers through her curls a few times. She then lit two candles, setting one by either of them on the central wood table, as she muttered to herself.
“You’ve caused so much trouble, dear. That was close. How do I word this…?”
She took a seat at the other end of the table and glared at Jasmine, a finger on her lip. “‘Brother’, ‘reaction’ and ‘fear’,” she murmured, tilting her head slightly.
“Besides the command to stay seated, meaning I intend for you to stay there, I rescind all other commands.”
Blinked a few more.
This is Rampure. That’s a Noble. Dark curls, skin and eyes. Curvy, but not short. Did she say she could turn me in for status? She’s not of the Royal line then. Even if she had similarities. But…
Adrenaline kicked. Jasmine swiveled in her chair frantically, taking in the room. Wood door. Tiled floor. High windows. What was this place? They went through—what was it?—a hallway and two rooms to get here?
Her only verbal restraint was this chair.
Jasmine took a quick deep breath.
“And don’t make any loud noises!”
The air hissed back out through her nose.
Don’t panic. She shouldn’t be obvious. She can think now. Think carefully. What information can she gather? This was why she was sent here. Espionage.
But can she do her job under the thumb of a Noble?
She took large paced breaths and refocused on Curls.
“There you go… Well done,” she taunted. Jasmine glared back. Tears pricked at her eyes again.
“What’s your name, dear?”
“I remember that flower. Beautiful and sweet. Good as tea, too. A nice name.” Curls smiled.
“Jasmine, protect me and never attempt to cause me harm.”
Blasted Gale… now she can’t willingly incapacitate her in a harmful way. Jasmine prayed to the Saints of Mercy that she could find a loophole in whatever commands Curls laid down.
“How old are you?”
Curls sucked her teeth, disappointed. “I hoped you just looked young for your age. No matter. A few years until you’re an adult.”
Was she insinuating—?
“What’s your brother’s name?”
Everything constricted. Throat, fists, stomach. When had she mentioned him?
Keep thinking. Don’t stop thinking. Notice everything. Jasmine revealed only a nickname. Was it possible to lie? When would it be ideal to lie?
“And how old is he?”
“That’s better,” the woman cooed, her lips curling.
“Don’t. Touch. Him.” Jasmine shook her head and her eyes blurred, tears falling across her cheeks.
“Oh, you sweet child. Are you more scared for him than yourself?” the woman said.
Jasmine tucked her chin and scraped her chair on the floor as she pushed back an inch.
“Don’t worry. I won’t.”
Jasmine relaxed minutely. Curls must have other plans though. Nothing good.
She felt the weight of the Call Stones in her pocket.
She had panicked and now her family must know she was in serious trouble. They shouldn’t come. Mom was smart though. They’ll make a plan. Right? Jasmine should send some Stones back. Give them more tools to work with.
Jasmine shifted, feigning timidity, hiding her right side from Curls.
“Who are you? Do you live here?” She slid a hand into her skirt pocket and felt each Stone’s embossed symbol before sending them back one by one.
“Me? I’m your new best friend. But you can call me your Lady or Mistress Leyla.”
“Ley-Lady Leyla.” So that was an Obligation.
A bird, Avian’s Stone; she sent it back. A butterfly, Milan’s; she kept it. A claw, Tallin’s; she sent it.
“Ohh,” Curls giggled. “I like how that rolls.”
Jasmine took her hand out and gripped her mother’s and brother’s Stones from outside her skirt.
“So my dear, where are you from? Are you from Rampure or another kingdom?”
All her other questions automatically brought the answer to mind. But this time nothing came. Jasmine’s shoulders dropped. How could she not know this?
“I’m… not from here.”
“You look confused.” Her sultry tone became knife-like. “Where are you from?”
Jasmine blinked. “I–I’m not sure.”
“You’re telling the truth, right? Do you not know where you’re from? Where’s your home?”
“Yes, it’s the truth! No, I don’t remember. I don’t know!”
“How?” she hissed.
Jasmine’s gripped tightened. “Probably an Obligation.”
“Oh, of course,” Curls moaned.
What did Jasmine still have then? Who was her liege? Blank. Where was home? Lost. How about her family? Mom, Milan, Aunt Lorna, cousins Tallin and Avian… that seemed right. Friends? Cayd, Bray, Lillian, Sara… She could remember all of them. Probably.
Maybe it was…
Curls asked for Jasmine’s armory stone. It wasn’t marked; hintless. She tossed it back to Jasmine.
“Well, in the end it doesn’t matter,” she laughed. “How would you have kept in contact with family?”
“Letters through the stone.” She remembered writing letters. But a step seemed missing.
“Then we’ll do that,” she said cheerfully.
“What do you mean?”
“Write a convincing letter for your brother to come and save you. And then help me catch him.”