It had been a few days since Jasmine got her letter back. Milan marked it with two triangles touching at point like a butterfly, and the words “Be safe. I’m coming.” Any day now, Milan would show up. If he had taken her information to heart, he’d probably come alone. He would try to whisk her away, or assassinate Leyla.
She prayed he wouldn’t.
Everything she’d told him in her letter had been a lie.
Ideally, Milan would see through it, and tell others. He would come with a small team to try to save her.
She wanted to see him again so badly.
There were times that Jasmine sometimes imagined seeing her brother in a crowd, or suddenly appearing in the doorway, just out of the corner of her eye. She wondered if these were really her own feelings, or if Leyla had somehow made her miss him so badly. She needed to keep her mind in check. She missed her family dreadfully, but they shouldn’t be trapped in her mess. She asked for this mission… it could all go wrong, terribly quickly. What if, because of her, her whole family was captured and used for–
Don’t think like that.
Despair was dangerous. When she caught herself, Jasmine thought up scenarios where things ended positively. Calculate. Look for opportunities. She played and replayed in her mind what she should do or say when she saw Milan or anyone from home. Were the loopholes in Lady Leyla’s commands big enough to allow such disobedience?
Jasmine shook her head. No. Don’t think of her like that. Don’t call her that outside the Obligation. She is just that woman, Curls.
But it was becoming harder to not fall into new habits. Jasmine shivered.
“Is everything alright, Jessica?” Mrs. Deina asked, looking over her shoulder. She was Leyla’s personal aide and... never got Jasmine’s name quite right. She was a kind elderly lady who liked routine and enjoyed simple pleasures.
“Just a little cold from the wind, Missus.” Jasmine brushed her hair back.
Mrs. Deina smiled warmly. “Let me know if anything is bothering you, dear. Don’t be self-conscious now. I’m used to odd requests.”
She would be, from caring for a “Blind” Nobleman by herself. Curls was unable to bathe, cook, clean, or even choose ingredients from the market if they were too fresh. She couldn’t see or feel water, fire, dirt or living plants and animals.
Jasmine smiled back. “I’ll be fine.”
“Alright. We just need one last thing and we’ll be back soon.” She turned away and they continued on their way to their last errand.
Mrs. Deina didn’t know anything about her ordeal. She had been told that Jasmine was simply a homeless girl that asked for shelter in exchange for being a helping hand. The house they lived in was too big for two and Mrs. Deina was happy to have Jasmine to stay with them.
Jasmine helped clean and cook. She didn’t mind that so much, since that was helping Mrs. Deina more than Curls. But whenever that woman was bored, she commanded Jasmine to entertain in the form of song or dance. And if the aide wasn’t around, she’d command strange things of the young Magician, like to act like a doll or toy, to pretend to be a pet, or to tell her embarrassing stories about herself.
She could handle that, but that woman kept insisting on teaching her that… Magicians weren’t…
She thought she heard a quiet tenor voice. She stopped walking. Was she hearing things?
She… She should separate herself from the caretaker.
“Mrs. Deina?” she called out, “I’ll be going back now, if that’s alright?”
“Alright Josephine! Stay warm! If you’re not feeling well, just rest, okay dear?”
“Yes. Thank you!”
Jasmine stood there, waiting as Mrs. Deina continued on her way without a clue.
Her knees felt weak and she shut her eyes. Should she find a seat? This street had open benches here and there. But her legs didn’t want to move.
Should she look? What if it wasn’t real? What if she imagined it? What if it was a hallucination from all her daydreaming?
Whoever you are, knock me out. Take me home. Get me out. Leyla’s Obligations would feel like a sickness but it would be better than being used to–
“Jasmine, how are you doing?” the voice asked, deeply concerned. She felt him gently grasp her upper arm. She flinched at his touch and cringed.
Someone came for her. Her mind blanked.
She heard cloth shifting, as he probably turned to look around them. “We shouldn’t talk here. I’ll find some place private. Can you…?”
This... wasn’t her brother. He’d have wrapped her in a hug and pulled her aside and…
Jasmine opened her eyes slowly. At eye-level, thin dark eyes stared back at her. This was a dream she didn’t dare imagine herself. Cayden had come for her. She took in his eyes, dark complexion and straight black hair. His expression was stoic, despite the concern in his voice.
Hope and fear flooded her senses.
“Cayden…? Why–? What are you doing here?” She gasped. “D–don’t answer! I’m–I’m Obligated to ask questions.”
He smiled briefly. “Should we stay in public, or is a private area safer?”
The old warehouse was private and empty. But she shouldn’t–
She cringed and shook her head to throw the idea away. She needed to give him information.
“Um… Th- Th- C- Ley-” Jasmine huffed indignantly. She wished that she could find a way around speaking her name to anyone else. She settled for saying it spitefully. “Lady Leyla is at the house.”
Cayden made a noise. Was it a laugh?
“…And the older woman I was with, Mrs. Deina, she may come back this way.”
“How about that tea shop then?” Cayden nodded toward a place behind her. “We can take a seat further inside. Just talk.”
“Yes. Please,” she sighed.
Talking was good. She needed to get information from–N-no. She needed to give him as much as she could.
His touch was like a small shock to her system, as Cayden took her arm and guided her inside. She leaned in toward him a little, feeling comforted by the contact.
He asked for a private area and they were led to booths with curtains to separate them from the noise of others around them. He thanked the server and ordered something while Jasmine slid into the opposite seat from him. The curtain rings clattered as he closed the drapes.
“Jasmine, how are you doing?” he asked again.
She brushed her hair over her ear. Her heart pounded and she struggled to think. She felt the compulsion to ask him questions. Who else came? Who could she give to Leyla? She wanted to tell Cayden everything. She didn’t want to be alone. And to top everything off, she hadn’t expected her feelings for her preteen crush to reignite during such a dire situation.
The two of them, in close proximity, alone in a booth at a cute tea shop…
This was a trap. She would ensnare him. All for Leyla.
It was warm in the small booth.
“You don’t look well.”
She was grateful the lighting was dim.
“It’s just hard to focus. Obligations, thoughts. Too much at once.”
“What can I do to help?”
“Just… Just ask me questions. Give me something else to focus on.”
He nodded. “Leyla is the Nobleman’s name, right? Who is Mrs. Deina? Is she Noble, Magician or Exempt?”
Jasmine appreciated his calm presence. She could push her feelings aside and just let herself talk. She thoughtlessly creased and flattened the fabric of her dress as she spoke.
She explained how Mrs. Deina was Lady Leyla’s personal caretaker, which led to explaining Leyla’s situation.
Queen Rampure was Leyla’s great aunt’s granddaughter. The queen blackmailed the Nobles of her kingdom, her own relatives, and had them attack other kingdoms with their Magicians. Leyla’s two cousins and brother gave in, but Leyla just wouldn’t cooperate, so she was exiled from the palace.
“She doesn’t have any children?” Cayden asked.
“No. I’m sure she doesn’t. It’s just her and Mrs. Deina at the house. I don’t think she ever fell in love. She’s obsessed with… her plan.”
Leyla believed in a Power higher than the Gale. Through creating the Blinding, this Power set these events, these wars, into motion intentionally. The kingdoms war against each other, killing Nobleman and Magicians. This followed the Power’s wish to end the Gale’s rules. Leyla repeated this many times, and Jasmine just nodded and prayed to the Saints that she wouldn’t command Jasmine to believe it too.
Rampure promised Leyla would be allowed back, fully reinstated and given her own Magician, if she decided to cooperate and proved herself useful. Leyla scoffed at the offer and explained that she was working on a plan to… to…
“Sh–Shouldn’t you be writing notes or something?”
Cayden pulled out a small paper pad and a pencil from his jacket. He wrote a few things as the tea arrived and their cups were filled. The aroma of lavender and honey filled the space, helping to calm her nerves.
Jasmine sipped carefully while watching him write. She longed to be home. Let this be a long bad dream, and she could wake up and have the courage to ask him for a simple date.
She closed her eyes and focused on the sound of pencil scratches, distant murmurs of a happy crowd, the scent of lavender, and the warmth of tea in the air and her hands. Jasmine sighed. She could almost imagine she wasn’t here, if it wasn’t for the Obligations nagging her to…
“Lavender tea?” she asked to distract herself.
“It helps the nerves I hope.”
“Yes,” she sighed.
She had seen children in town drinking tea with their–
Remember, you’re my doll now.
Jasmine cringed. Those words repeated themselves at the worst times. She reactively said something to push it out of her mind.
“How are you?”
He smiled again. “I’m better after seeing how you are.”
She hid her reddening cheeks behind her hands and cup as she sipped. “Are you alone?” she went on. “How did you get here? Did Milan come with you?”
“No, I’m with you. We paid a driver. And he couldn’t come with. He’s pretty upset about that.”
She set down her cup and swirled it, thinking.
“We paid”… He didn’t come alone.
“...couldn’t come with”? … Vague. Maybe Milan came. … Maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe he was on his way.
“He’s upset”? … Maybe he was held back.
Jasmine slapped a hand over her mouth. Her mind betrayed her. Hunting for information Leyla wanted. This was why she warned him!
“You’re not supposed to answer anything!” she hissed.
“It’s okay,” Cayden soothed. “What I said was fine. I don’t have to lie.”
“No. Do you actually understand? Just… don’t answer anything,” She shrank in her seat and whimpered. “You mustn’t trust me.”
Cayden’s smile dropped and he leaned forward. “Jasmine, no. Why do you think that?”
Remember, you’re my doll now. That voice, that reminder pressed further.
You’re not actually people even if you’ve all convinced yourself and everyone else. Magicians are distorted. Fake. Both the Gale and the Power maintain this truth. The Gale asserts that Magicians are meant to be used. And the Power shows us Noblemen the distortion. That you all are not whole.
The way she looked at her, and used her. Possessive, obsessive, controlling, dominant. And all she could do was smile and obey. A puppet.
“No! You shouldn’t trust me,” Jasmine’s voice became harsh as her eyes blurred. “I’m–I’m a Magician. I’m under the command of a villainous Nobleman that intends to use me and my family to attack their own kingdom, steal more Magicians and,” she swallowed hard through her sobs, “and raise Magician children to destroy all other kingdoms. She intends to kill every Nobleman and Magician if she gets her way! You–You should kill me before I–”
Cayden bumped his cup as he rounded the table. His arms were wrapped tightly around her before the cup stopped ringing against its saucer.
“I’m sorry. Please. I can’t listen to another second of that,” he begged.
Remember, you’re my doll now. My pet, my friend, my tool, my weapon.
“I’m her doll, her p–pet,” she repeated weakly, stuttering through her tears. “I’ve–I’ve been her cat and mewled for her and curled up next to her. I’ve been her music box. I s–sing and dance when she wants me to. I’m Obligated to do whatever she asks. Be whatever she asks. I’m j–just her tool and her weapon.”
“No, Jasmine. Please.” He tightened his hold. “That’s not who you are.”
“Even so, I’m–I’m going to betray you,” her voice squeaked between sobs, “She has me under liegeoath. And other… She… has plans.”
“That’s okay. I know your original liegeoath. You’ve explained it before. It includes the kingdom. Includes me. You won’t hurt me. You can’t,” he soothed. “I’ll be fine.”
That’s not enough to protect you from me.
She wanted to argue with him, but her voice choked and only sobs escaped. She awkwardly brought her arms around him. His embrace was comforting. Made her feel real again. And yet it stung to know she would only hurt him.
In time she calmed again. She tapped his arm and he carefully released her.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that,” he said softly. He offered her a handkerchief and she took it gratefully.
“N–no. Actually, thank you.” She heaved a sigh. “I’m sorry. I–I should be more together. Fifteen and crying like a baby…”
“You’re fine. What you just told me… this whole situation… It’s completely insane. I’m just glad to find you as… you.” He straightened his clothes with a sigh. “Tita Felicia warned that… She said emotions could be commanded. Or you could be made to forget.”
Tita. Hearing him call her mother ‘aunt’ made Jasmine smile.
“Yes. It’s true.” Jasmine wiped her eyes on her sleeve and sniffled. “She hasn’t noticed it yet, but I’ve acted subservient, hoping she doesn’t think to use such commands. And… I’m certain that I’ve forgotten important things about home in case I’m interrogated.”
Cayden looked up. Jasmine folded the handkerchief, exposing the large crest embroidery on top. It looked like one sconce holding three flames. She traced it gently with her finger. Was this their home kingdom’s mark?
“I don’t remember where home is and I don’t know who my liege is. I can’t remember any of the guard’s names or even the shape of the walls.” Jasmine shrugged as she spoke.
“What… what commands were you given, that you can tell me?” Cayden leaned forward, eyebrows furrowed.
“Protect her. Don’t try to escape. Not to use magic openly, with exceptions. I still have my old armory stone. But she’s locked me out of using it unless specifically for her benefit. To sing. Dance. Act. Clean. Cook. To t-... To bring Milan.”
To trap him or anyone else that tries to help me.
“To–... To remember ‘I’m her doll’ and that I belong to her.”
Something shifted on the table. Cayden had clenched his fist.
“I wasn’t made to believe it,” she added hastily. “But, it just… repeats in my mind once in a while. And it got to me earlier. I’ll be fine.” She tried to reassure herself as much as him. “I–I’m supposed to ask questions,” she continued. “Like, ‘where are we from?’, ‘Who are you with?’, ‘Are there any Magicians with you?’, ‘What’s your plan to save me?’ Then tell her what I learned.”
After I’ve trapped you.
She bit her lip, fighting with herself to get some hint of that out. “I can’t say more. I’m sorry.”
“Can you describe where you’ve stayed or how to get there?”
She shook her head. “That would go against the liegeoath, since you or someone else might try to attack her to save me.”
“You carry your coins, right? You don’t keep it in the armory?” She nodded and brought out her little drawstring coin-purse.
“I can pay for the tea.” She smiled weakly.
“Not if I can help it,” Cayden said playfully, taking her coin purse as he turned away momentarily and dug in his jacket, eventually producing his own.
She sighed wearily. Now that their pocket of time seemed to be ending, hope and fear clashed again within her. Could he get her out of this? Or would she trap him and betray him like she warned she would? If this was the last time she’d ever see him, she was grateful for this experience and his kindness. But what if she became the reason he…
She drank the last of her now cold tea.
“I’m sorry, Cayden.”
“Nothing happened to me yet, Jazz.” His eyes shone with determination as he spoke. “I’m sorry for what you’ve been through. I’ll do anything I can to help.”
Then leave! she wanted to scream. I don’t want to be the cause of your imprisonment or death.
Her face screwed up, her tears threatening to spill again. Cayden grabbed her free hand, pressing her coin purse into it as he clasped his hands around hers.
“It’s best if you don’t lose this. I put a secret lucky coin inside.”
Jasmine cracked a smile. “Don’t be silly. You’re sounding like Milan. You can’t enchant luck, Cayd.”
At that, Cayden smiled more brightly than she’d ever seen before. Such a smile out of him was a rare gift. Jasmine nearly forgot where she was.
“Tita told me if someone wished hard enough, put their heart in it for long enough, anyone can enchant something.”
He looked so proud of himself.
She looked at her hands and her heart fluttered. His slender hands, scarred here and there from nicks during weapon practice, were still clasped around hers.
“I’ll keep it with me then.” Jasmine thanked the Saints that somehow she managed to not stutter. “And I’ll be sure it’s safe.”
“Thank you. That’s all I need.”
His smile softened. He let her go so that he could go and pay for the tea. Jasmine sat there, dumbstruck for a little longer, staring at her purse. She tried to feel through it, to see if there actually was a new coin in there. She was tempted to peek inside but he had used the word “secret”, so she decided not to look quite yet.
The bell on the tea shop door chimed as they stepped out.
“What’s your plan now?” Jasmine asked.
“Not sure,” Cayden replied nonchalantly. “I have two options I think.”
He should leave and report, or tail her until she was with Curls again.
They started down the street. He kept a half step behind her.
“Either I follow you or you follow me.”
He didn’t intend to leave her. She had trapped him. Her fears crashed into her again and she stopped walking. Where was she walking to? Where was she leading him?
Leaping from joy to intense dread made her suddenly drained, weak and confused. She swayed and he caught her.
“Jazz? What’s wrong?”
“Cayden! Please, leave!” She could finally say it out loud. But she knew that was because she would never convince him to leave now. “Get out of here! It’s not safe! I’m not safe! Please!” She struggled against him. Tried to push him off.
But he held her up, standing firm and taking her weak hits.
“It’ll be okay. I’ll be fine,” he whispered.
How could he be so certain?
“No! I can’t let you get hurt because of me.”
Remember, you’re my doll now.
“I can’t… can’t let you…” Her burst of adrenaline ran out as swiftly as it hit her.
“Jasmine,” he pleaded, “what can I say to help you? I’ll be fine. I swear.”
Her heart burned. He was too precious to lose. Why was he here? Saints of Mercy, why was it Cayden? It could have been any guardsman or a hired hand, anyone! Cayden was still young.
They said he fancied someone. It was probably Mirna, that guard trainee. Wasn’t Cayden a guard trainee too? Was he obligated to come or did he choose this?
“Why are you here? Why you? I don’t–I don’t understand,” she whimpered.
He gently walked her to a stool at the side of the street and let her lean against a wall and faced her.
Cayden spoke slowly and clearly. “I’m good friends with you and your brother and I believe I know you very well. I have my skills and know how to defend myself. Does that help, Jasmine?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I’m so scared, Cayden. I’ve… never been like this before.” How worthless was she? She asked to go on this mission by herself, and now she fell to pieces as soon as someone came to help. This was too much. She wanted to melt into the ground. Be nothing. …Then Cayden could go home.
“Of course,” he whispered. “This is terrifying. We’re young, inexperienced and in a war that doesn’t make sense. You’ve done so much already to help us. You did everything you could. You were so brave to get this far. But now, can you trust me? Can you leave the rest to me?”
Trust him? Of course she could.
Cayden Garner. The most capable, considerate, and trustworthy person she’d met. The same qualities that made her fall for him the first time.
A couple years back, before the war started, she had shaped a stone amulet for him that resembled her family’s enchanted Call Stones. Though his couldn’t be enchanted, she put effort into it and thought he would like it. Their families were close, but that was an excuse to make something for the boy she liked. After giving him the amulet, she wasn’t sure if he liked it or not. He could be hard to read, but she would think he would have said something. After a while, Jasmine wondered if he was just being polite to her.
His peers kept joking that he preferred strong women–like Mirna. Someone who could be as stern and serious as him.
Of course he would want that. And so Jasmine gave up on her feelings.
How did she let their words affect her? They didn’t know him at all. And she’d wasted so much time.
But now she was drowning again. It wasn’t the warm feeling of a simple crush. It seared like a fire in her chest. Would she fall in love again just to be his end?
Can you trust me?
That was an easy “Yes”.
She just… couldn’t trust herself.
“I’m… her doll.”
She would betray him.
“No. You’re Jasmine Marchen.” Cayden held her as he spoke. She wanted to cling to him again, never let him go. Keep them there, away from everything. Away from danger. “You are a strong, kind and clever person. You’re crafty, resourceful and braver than anyone.”
Cayden doesn’t lie. Could she really be all those things?
“It seems you’ve reached a limit though. You’ve had it rough. It’s okay to let go. I can handle it from here.”
He touched her chin, asking her to look at him. He looked concerned, but in control. Unlike her.
“Please. Can you trust me?”
She swallowed and nodded. He smiled.
“Will you let me help you?”
He said he could handle it… She nodded again.
“Will you support me as I take the lead?”
Jasmine liked the sound of that.
She took a deep breath. “Yes,” she croaked with a final nod. She tried to smile.
Cayden smiled back and let her go. He handed her his handkerchief, letting her wipe her face. She hadn’t realized when she’d started crying again.
He’d lead. She could support. That sounded good.
She could breathe.
Her nerves cooled and her heart calmed somewhat.
He’d lead now. And she could support him.