Jasmine heard a brief but piercing whistle. Panic seized her chest. No… Across the street, she locked eyes with Lady Leyla. The woman brushed her curly hair behind her ear and beckoned Jasmine over with a twist of her wrist. They had a chance without her. Why did she have to find them so soon? Jasmine shook her head, gripping Cayden’s arm tighter. She must keep Cayden and Curls away from each other. Must protect them from each other. No. Protect Cayden from her! Curls raised an eyebrow, and frowned. Jasmine flinched.
Cayden tried to pry her hand from his wrist. He’d said something, but she didn’t catch it. Curls walked toward them.
“No,” Jasmine pleaded, “No.”
Cayden stopped struggling and instead laid his hand over hers. He tried to grab her attention, but she wouldn’t look up. Why wouldn’t he move?
“Cayden, no. She’s–! I have to–”
“You’ve never been late before. And this is where you’ve been?” Curls said in her playful voice. “Who’s your new friend?”
“C–Cayden, My Lady.” My Lady? Jasmine held back a scowl behind pursed lips. When did ‘my Lady’ become a normal reaction?
All of a sudden, Cayden pulled roughly against her grasp. Her eye caught a flash of silver.
“No!” Jasmine lunged for his other arm.
She caught his hand just in time. Cayden had drawn a dirk, and pointed it at Leyla’s stomach. The blade just barely brushed the cloth of her jacket. She could feel him shake from the strain against her grip.
“Ah, I see,” Curls cooed, “This is why you didn’t come forward.”
No. NO! Jasmine screamed in her mind, hating the compulsion she had to protect this witch. Gale, I don’t want to protect her. She shouldn’t live!
“Take that from him,” Curls ordered.
Jasmine watched as Cayden breathed out slowly and seemed to relax. “I’m sorry. I won’t try that again,” he whispered. He twirled the dagger handing it hilt-first to Jasmine.
She carefully let go of him then touched the weapon, sending it to the armory in a flash of pale yellow.
“I have no other weapons on me,” he said to Curls. Cayden rubbed his hand and wrist where Jasmine had grabbed him.
She bit her lip. She had stopped him. This could have been over in that one instant if she hadn’t–
“No other weapons?” Curls asked.
“Just the dirk.”
“Jasmine?” Curls prodded.
“He has nothing else,” she responded. Though she hadn’t checked, she was sure enough. Cayden never lied.
But… he’d also said some things she wasn’t so sure about.
You are a strong, kind and clever person. You’re crafty, resourceful and braver than anyone.
Could she really be all those things? She remembered how she was before coming to Rampure, but she didn’t feel the same. As if she’d gradually gotten used to the idea of… being Leyla’s.
“I confess,” Cayden said, “I was instructed to kill you at the first opportunity. Obviously, I’ve lost my chance. Our only option now is to negotiate.”
“Lady Leyla, do you have any weapons?” Jasmine asked.
Curls glared at Jasmine, but she didn’t flinch. Jasmine wanted to be sure. She should think of anything that could help him.
“Why would you ask that?” Curls asked doubtfully.
“Her liegeoaths protects us both,” Cayden explained, taking a half step between Leyla and herself again. His attention seemed fixed on Curls and an arm extended low in a protective gesture in front of Jasmine.
“Liegeoaths?” Curls’ glare redirected to Cayden.
“Yes.” Jasmine bowed her head.
Curls paused for a moment, then pulled out a hunting knife from her boot. She held it out to Jasmine, her hand open but out of Cayden’s reach. Jasmine touched Cayden’s arm. He lowered it reluctantly and allowed Jasmine to approach her.
“It’s not like I actually mind,” she said as the weapon vanished with Jasmine’s touch. “I don’t need one with you around.” Curls brushed Jasmine’s cheek with a finger, causing her to tense. “And to be sure you can’t be used against me, you mustn’t obey any of that boy’s Obligations.”
Cayden inhaled sharply as Jasmine looked up in surprise. She thought Cayden was a Nobleman.
“You’re mine,” the woman giggled as she spoke, “And not his. Isn’t that right, my dear?” Leyla’s finger lingered before trailing down to Jasmine’s chin.
Remember, you’re my doll now.
“Don’t touch her,” Cayden said slowly through his teeth. Something felt very different about him.
Why–? Jasmine turned and her breath caught in her throat. If looks could kill…
To anyone else, the way he kept his breath even, or how his eyes glinted as he focused his gaze completely on Leyla might be the only unusual thing they saw about him. But she could feel the intensity radiating off of him.
It was like watching sparks fly near dry leaves. Before long, something could catch fire.
Jasmine grasped his arm. They mustn’t fight.
Curls stepped back and smirked, raising an eyebrow. “Possessive much? Jasmine is mine, boy. If she used to be yours, you’ve lost her when you let her out on her own.”
She needed her mind clear. Focused. Just help Cayden. Nothing else matters.
Jasmine glanced around. A few bystanders and passersby were staring, and she could hear murmuring from the crowd that seemed to be gathering. “Let’s go somewhere else,” she suggested, leaning into Cayden. “We’re attracting attention. D–didn’t you say something about negotiating?”
“Yes. Let’s not make a show,” Curls purred. “Are there anymore friends in the crowd? Or did he come alone?”
Jasmine glanced around at the onlooker’s faces. “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t recognize anyone. I believe he is alone.”
“Let’s go. Make sure he doesn’t try anything.” Curls walked around them, leading the way.
Jasmine turned to comply, stumbling into Cayden. He caught and held her for a moment, his strong, solid arms around her.
She felt safe and warm.
But only a moment, as the Gale pulled her out of his arms. Forcing her to follow Leyla. She shivered.
Cayden offered his arm to her and she took it gratefully. She calmed somewhat as they walked arm in arm together. He shuddered and pulled her closer..
“Cayden?” Jasmine whispered.
“I’m… I’ll be fine,” he said. “You?”
Remember, you’re my doll now.
She squeezed her eyes shut, willing that woman’s words out. That’s not who you are, Cayden had said.
She opened her eyes and sighed. “I’ll be fine, too.”
Dread crept into her bones. She gripped Cayden’s arm tighter as they approached a large, decrepit building. It was an abandoned warehouse that Leyla had claimed as her own some time ago. The solid rolling front gates were shut and sealed by melted metal. Jasmine had cleaned, fixed and stabilized the structure, making it inhabitable once again.
She carefully let go of Cayden’s arm. Curls guided them toward the side door. Their footsteps echoed on the large stone tiles as they entered the building. Sunbeams angled in through the high pane-less windows, illuminating the dusty air and thick pillars inside. When they were ten paces in, Curls had them stop in a patch of sun. “Don’t let him move from there.” She shut the door then clicked several locks. “We don’t want any surprise guests during our little meeting.”
Jasmine nervously glanced between Curls and Cayden as he took in the surroundings. “It’d be best if you stayed by me,” he whispered.
Jasmine acknowledged with a nod. Her best tool right now was the liegeoath to protect him. She braced herself. Focus. Be clever. Resourceful. Brave.
Curls smiled and came forward. “Now, kid… Cayden was it? What do you think you can negotiate with?”
“Information and resources.”
“I don’t care about your information unless it gets me more Magicians. I’ve heard Jasmine has a brother. Mil. I’d love to meet him. We’ve wanted to see him, isn’t that right Jasmine?”
Jasmine tensed, gripping her pocket where she kept her mother’s and Milan’s Call Stones. The enchanted stones that could lead them to her. Next to them was her coin-purse, where she kept Cayden’s lucky coin. If she knew of a Saint of Luck she’d be praying to it now.
“Don’t talk to her,” he growled, “This is between us.”
“Me?” Curls howled in laughter, which only seemed to grow louder from the echoes. It sent shivers down Jasmine’s back. “She’s mine, child. You’re the one who asked to negotiate. You’re still here because I’m interested in you.”
“What?” Cayden said.
“Did you think I didn’t notice? The way you look at her, react to her… Clearly you’ve a one track mind. ‘Don’t touch her,’” she said mockingly and laughed again. “I could tell her to walk away and let me have my way with you. What’s hers is mine, after all. A few words from me and she won’t even object.”
“Wait!” Jasmine yelled, horror-struck at the thought.
“My dear, don’t think about it.”
Her mind froze. Her heart pounded in her chest. She blinked, trying to calm and refocus.
“You sounded like her when I asked about her brother. Oh, she was crying. Adorable. I can tell. You won’t do a thing to damage her. But why is that? Did the liege of your kingdom promise you could keep her if you won her from me?” Curls hummed and touched her lip. “What are you? A desperate prince? Or a spare that was thrust aside and used only when convenient? Oh, do I know what that’s like.”
Leyla was on one of her rants again. Jasmine watched as the deranged Noble started to walk in a wide circle around them, searching for a reaction from Cayden. “I was never allowed my own Magician. My bloodline was just too far from Her Majesty’s. She could spare one, but no, not unless I proved my loyalty in some way. She had no way to force my hand so she tried to offer a Magician. But no, any Magician she would give me would answer to her first. I couldn’t have that. So with nothing left to pin me down, they kicked me out.”
She laughed again. “Oh but that was a blessing in disguise! If I wasn’t out here, I wouldn’t have found my darling little pet. Someone left their Magician unattended in our streets and…” She placed a finger on her lip, “I find myself a bit attached to her,” she cooed.
“She isn’t your pet,” Cayden said slowly.
Curls smiled coyly, seemingly pleased with his response. “Just look at them! They aren’t people. What else would you call it when you find a stray thing and take her in?”
Jasmine had become used to her taunts, how she flaunted her power and dominance, but Cayden seemed to lose his composure. Jasmine tugged on his wrist.
“Do you want to kill me? Take her from me? ...I’m willing to give her to you on two conditions,” She paused again, watching Cayden’s expression, “If you give me her brother and pledge yourself to me and do as I say, she’s yours.” She giggled. “Oh dear, I sound like the Queen.”
Cayden said nothing.
“If he’s anything like her I’ll be quite happy. And, I’m sure you know, you only need one Magician to make more. It would be quicker if it was her brother.”
“No!” he snapped.
“Oh? I guess you don’t want her back that badly then. If you can’t be persuaded, maybe I’ll just… make sure you can’t take her. Jasmine, come here.”
Jasmine stiffened, looking to Cayden. His eyes were filled with horror.
“No,” he breathed.
Curls’ smile broadened. “Now, Jasmine…”
Jasmine looked down. What would she say? Her mind raced as she thought of all the possible commands and how to–
“No, no, sweetie. Look me in the eye.” Curls’ voice was almost playful as she gently reached under Jasmine’s chin and tilted her head up. It wasn’t what she expected. Her thoughts escaped her. She looked up.
“Don’t… Stop,” Cayden pleaded.
Jasmine swallowed. The woman’s dark eyes were distractingly cold, empty and starved of light. They never seemed to stay focused when she stared at Jasmine.
“Know that you’re mine, Jasmine,” Curls smirked, “You won’t leave me so easily.”
Her throat tightened.
But… but of course. What was she thinking? Leyla had her. By Jasmine’s own carelessness, this witch had found and trapped her with her voice. So simple. All it had taken was a few words. She was here now. Escape? There’s no escape from the Gale.
“Of course, my Lady,” Jasmine muttered.
Leyla giggled. She was pleased with her.
Jasmine bowed her head and stepped back.
Leyla was about to say more when…
“Stop!” Cayden’s shout shook them both.
Jasmine felt the tiles vibrate, as if the earth was shifting beneath them.
The door’s hinges snapped loudly. The wood where the locks bolts met the frame shattered into large splinters as the door burst open. A man ran toward them wielding a dagger.
“Stop him! Protect me!” Lady Leyla shrieked.
She felt a tug on her clothing from Cayden, but she pulled free easily. She crouched and called moisture from the air, forming ice on the ground and around Cayden’s ankles to trap him in place. The man darted around the ice, chasing Leyla further into the empty warehouse.
Jasmine summoned a blade and dove between the assassin and Leyla. With each move he made, Jasmine lunged, or dodged, or parried in return. Every clash, bang and cry reverberated in the open space.
As the fight wore on, Jasmine realized her opponent outmatched her. He should have overpowered her, but any strike he made only attempted to disarm her. It was almost like sparring with Cayden. Everything about this man seemed familiar.
He pushed her further into the room. Was Leyla behind her somewhere? While she was distracted for that instant, the man rammed into her. Jasmine’s back slammed into one of the thick wooden beams, winding her. The man knocked the dagger from her grasp. Jasmine flinched expecting something to come down and knock her out.
Footsteps pounded away from her.
She saw the man charge at Leyla. The woman was now running back toward Cayden, who was still struggling to free his feet.
Jasmine bolted toward the man.
He must be stopped. Leyla must be protected.
Jasmine summoned throwing knives out of the armory and hurled them at him.
One missed. Three glanced off his back. Was he wearing plate armor under his clothes? The last knife, however, cut into just behind his left leg. He yelled as he fell to the floor. She caught up to him and stopped as he rolled on to his back, clutching his leg.
She’d stopped the man. Leyla was safe.
Where was Cayden?
“Kill him!” Her thoughts were redirected instantly. She turned back to the man, moving to stand over him.
“No!” Cayden shouted.
She summoned another blade and thrust down with it. The man grabbed her wrists and held them away. He was strong. What daemon could she call upon to end this?
“No! Rescind! Please!” Cayden begged. “He’s Exempt! He can’t fight anymore! He’s–!”
Cayden didn’t want the man to die…
Jasmine looked up and gasped. “My Lady, what are you doing?!” Jasmine shouted.
Leyla held Cayden in a headlock from behind, a switch-blade in her hand glinting just below his ear. Cayden struggled to keep his throat free, his hands pulling on her arm. “Don’t… make her… kill him!”
“I’ll not have more than one guest at a time,” she snapped. “How many more of your people are there?”
“Let him go!” Jasmine tried to wrench herself free from this man’s iron grip. She needed to free herself to end him. Then she could go to Cayden. To help him.
Could she protect Cayden from Leyla?
Everything was wrong. Jasmine was obeying a hated enemy. She was moments from killing someone. Cayden was terrified. For her.
Leyla leaned in and whispered something to Cayden, grinning wickedly.
“It’s not my oath to rescind! It’s the truth!” He struggled against her grip and shouted, “I rescind all commands!”
Cayden was pleading with Leyla. He was desperate.
“Please, rescind the kill!” Cayden choked out. “Please! She’ll conflict!”
Why would she conflict? She was protecting them from this man.
“Kill that man now!”
The earth rumbled as Jasmine looked down at her target, struggling to break his hold on her.
This man… He was familiar… They’ve met before. He reminded her of Cayden.
“Don’t think about it,” the man breathed.
It was too late for that. His features and voice clicked into memories. “Cayden’s–”
She must protect everyone of her kingdom. She mustn’t kill this man. She mustn’t harm him.
But she must kill him.
She choked. All her muscles seized. Action and inaction tore at her, ripping between must and mustn’t. Her blade slipped from her hand. She collapsed to the floor, shuddering.
Do not harm.
Something echoed faintly, far away.
Take it back! Saints, please! I swear I'll do anything! Please! Just rescind!
“Jasmine,” Leyla called, “don’t kill him.”
She gasped for air, then went limp, panting. Her muscles throbbed and ached.
“Jasmine,” the man–Cayden’s father–whispered.
He brushed her hair out of her face. She blinked. She could feel her hair and clothes sticking to her from sweat.
“S–sir?” she rasped.
“Have you come back to your senses?”
She coughed and cringed in pain. “Sir, I’m… sorry… about your leg.”
“Don’t worry about that.”
She looked up from the floor. He’d moved back and was tightening something–a belt?–around his leg. His pant leg was soaked and clung to his skin, and the ground was marked with streaks of red and the smell of metal.
“I’m sorry,” she whimpered.
Jasmine didn’t have to fight anymore. She was free to think and move. Ignoring the aches through her body, she pulled herself up. Where was Cayden…??
They hadn’t moved. Leyla still had an arm around his neck. Cayden stared at her, catching his breath, his arms limp at his sides. Had he given up struggling?
Jasmine pushed herself to her feet. “Let him go,” Jasmine demanded hoarsely.
He didn’t react. He was looking at her but his gaze seemed unfocused.
Neither seemed to have heard her.
Curls was speaking to him. What did she say to him?
“Lady Leyla… Please release him.”
She needed to separate them. Jasmine reached out to the ice and asked it to melt, hoping Cayden could save himself if he could move.
Cayden blinked then swallowed.
“Let him go. Please.”
He squeezed his eyes shut and sucked in a breath. When he looked at her again, he seemed to have regained some composure.
“Jasmine, your friend here pulled this dreadful stunt. Twice no less. What will prevent a third attempt? He’s just pledged to do anything I say, but how will he prove it?”
Jasmine bit her lip and gave Cayden an apologetic look. “I–If I held the knife…” Her throat was dry. She swallowed. “If I took your place, he won’t move. He can talk. He–he knows things I can’t remember. He’s not a Magician, his memory’s not blocked. If he tells you what I can’t, would that not be proof?”
Jasmine wouldn’t be able to tell if something was true or false. And Curls wanted to attack Rampure first, after all. This could still work. Maybe they could survive this without betraying their home. Without getting her family involved…
“I like that,” the woman purred, “Oh and what a sight… Your own Magician with a knife at your neck.”
He shut his eyes. “At your mercy.”
“Take my place and slice him open if he tries anything.”
He stood perfectly still as Curls and Jasmine switched places. Jasmine took the blade and wrapped her free arm across his throat, gently pressing the blade’s edge against his neck.
“Cayden,” Jasmine croaked, “I’m sorry.”
“I won’t move,” he promised, “We’ll be fine.”
Was that the right thing to do? Or had she said too much? Jasmine started to shake. She had come up with the idea to be in this position, but now it frightened her to her depths. She was painfully aware of the irony that she both held Cayden’s life and death at this moment. She clutched her own wrist holding the blade. She must still her hand. She tightened her arms and leaned in.
“I’m sorry,” she choked.
“This is my fault, not yours,” he said.
She could feel the chill in his fingers as he reached up to touch her hand.
“Ohh, I love this,” Curls purred, “Young man, here’s my idea. Your lovely Jasmine stays with me. And you… You may stay with her. Cut ties with your kingdom and do as I say. You two seem quite attached to each other as it is.” she giggled. “Where are you from anyways?”
Cayden flinched, took a breath then said, “Shandera.”
“Shandera?” Curls raised an eyebrow.
“Cayden!” his father shouted then gasped in pain, clutching his leg.
Curls laughed. “Well, it only makes sense after what they did.”
“Cayden,” Cayden’s father warned, “Know your place!”
Jasmine winced. This wasn’t Cayden’s fault. She squeezed her eyes shut, dipping her head further into the crook of his neck. She felt him move, as his hands covered hers, touching the hilt of the blade with her.
“Shut up,” Curls barked. “If you don’t bleed to death, I’ll deal with you after I send them home.”
“I’m so sorry, Jazz,” Cayden whispered.
As Jasmine was about to respond, Cayden moved his hand so that his wrist rested against the hilt of the— No, she could see something strapped to his wrist right before a white light flashed. Her hand was empty. She let go of him, staggering back in confusion. He could use Armory Stone magic?
Before she had time to make sense of what had just happened, Cayden slipped out of her arms and whirled behind her. Trying to follow his movement, she stumbled forward.
She needed to cut him. She needed a knife.
But she mustn’t harm him.
Her muscles constricted, paralyzing her again.
Curls shouted for Jasmine to stop him, but she could do nothing. Her head was splitting and her heart was being pulled apart as her body screamed.
Cayden was down by her foot. With a white flash, a chunk of the floor vanished under her revealing… Was that a cavern?
“Seal!” Cayden shouted. He released her and bolted off as the hole gaped open, threatening to pull her in.
Before she could react, Jasmine heard Curls screech something as she darted toward Cayden, holding something that flashed in the sunlight. Jasmine wanted to shout out and distract them both, but all she could manage was a startled yelp as the floor beneath her gave way, engulfing her in the cave below.
She heard Cayden crying out in pain as she landed on something soft and the earth closed above her, guided by an ice blue light. She was in someone’s arm, their other hand extended, framed in their blue aura, sealing the earth. As the air stilled, darkness swallowed her vision.
“I’m glad something went as planned,” a woman sighed.
“Shh. Save your strength, love.”
Everything ached. Her head, her heart, her body. But at least she was free. Free to move and think. This tunnel was sealed against the Gale. But that meant they had limited air. And limited time.
Was Cayden… alive? Or had she condemned him and everyone he brought with him?
Her mother sat down in the dark and gathered her daughter into her lap. Jasmine clung to her, trying to breathe between sobs that wracked her body. Mom kissed her and caressed her hair as they waited.
Would Cayden be alright? His father… His father was Shandera’s Head Captain. She remembered. He was an experienced soldier and was known for his quick thinking. Under normal circumstances, he was strong and swift. But how much help could he give with his leg injured? Guilt tore at Jasmine as she sat curled in her mother’s arms.
Dull sounds rumbled from above.
Her mother pressed her lips on Jasmine’s forehead.
The world above was now deathly silent.
After an endless moment, a section of the earth above vanished with a white glow, allowing a gust to sweep through the tunnel.
“Felicia, how is Jasmine? Are her Obligations gone?” Cayden’s father—Captain Garner’s voice called from above.
Where was Cayden?
She scrambled to her feet. “I’m fine, sir!” Jasmine gasped, “But Cayden–! Is… is he–?”
The Captain didn’t answer as he lowered his arm to help them climb out. Mom widened the opening and raised the earth beneath them, allowing Jasmine to grasp his arm.
The Captain looked beyond exhaustion, his face ashen and covered with sweat as he struggled for breath. Jasmine clambered out of the pit as swiftly as she could, looking around frantically.
She saw Cayden laying on the floor, clutching his side, as he gasped for air. Leyla laid close by, red liquid pooling underneath her unmoving body.
She hurried to his side, her mother close behind her. “Cayden! Are you hurt?”
“Jasmine,” he breathed. He smiled weakly. His face was streaked with dark smudges, his cravat was loose, and his jacket was drenched in dark red stains, the largest of which seemed to stem from a spot on his right side, where he clenched his hand. Mom summoned medical supplies as Cayden spoke.
“It’s–It’s just a cut,” he wheezed, “Didn’t move… fast enough. Had worse… before.”
Jasmine helped Cayden open his jacket to expose the wound so the Magicians could examine it better. She could hardly believe the amount of blood she saw. They used clean rags and water to clean the blood from the gash and then bandaged the area.
Her focus was broken only by the feeling of Cayden grasping her hand as he sucked in another breath. She watched as he hissed through gritted teeth at the slightest touch to his injury. Thankfully, it wasn’t as deep as Jasmine had feared, and the bleeding seemed to stop, but she still worried that he’d lost too much blood.
Cayden seemed to relax as they finished. When he tried to get up, Mom quickly moved to hold him down by the shoulder.
“No, you must lie still,” she instructed, “Is there anything else that’s hurting, Cayden?”
“No,” he breathed.
“Tita, how’s Father? His–His leg–?” Cayden asked as her mother sent bloodied rags, clothes and the supplies to the armory.
“I’m going to him now.”
As she hurried off, Jasmine stared at Cayden, watching his breathing. His eyes were shut and his face seemed ashen.
He still held her hand.
“Can you help me up? Help me to my father?” Cayden’s voice had recovered, and he looked at her wearily.
“You shouldn’t be moving,” Jasmine objected.
“I–I don’t–…” He hesitated. “I–I smell the blood, Jasmine,” he sighed. “I don’t want to be near–”
Jasmine stiffened. She glanced over at Leyla’s prone form, just one pace from them, in a pool of red.
Jasmine pursed her lips. “Alright. But you have to lie down when we do.”
He nodded in agreement. Carefully, Jasmine brought his arm around her shoulder, avoiding his wounded side. They walked together, taking cautious steps. To save her, Cayden had killed Leyla himself.
“Saints, Cayden. Thank you,” she whispered. “Thank you. I can’t even express–”
“D–Don’t–” Cayden choked out. His steps halting and he started to shudder. “No. I messed up. I’m–” He gasped as his arms and legs gave out.
“Cayden!” Jasmine helped him to a pillar to lean on it. “Are you okay?” she asked.
“S-sorry,” Cayden said, “I’ll be fine. I should… are you okay?”
Cayden’s voice was small and breathless. He looked sick.
“Cayden, you’re still bleeding.”
A dark stain had bloomed on his cravat, slowly growing with each passing second. He cupped a hand over it.
“Ah… A scratch. From earlier. …I’d moved under her knife.”
He smiled weakly and trailed off, as his eyes traveled to where Leyla’s body laid.
His eyes widened and he doubled over, coughing and sputtering as his stomach emptied itself.
“Cayd?” She grabbed his shoulders to steady him.
He caught his breath again. “I–I just need a moment.”
What could she do? What could she say to help him?
“You… haven’t answered. Are you okay?” he pressed, glancing up at her.
“I’m fine! I wasn’t injured.”
“The conflicts, Jasmine!” he shouted, making her flinch. Then his voice shrank to a whisper as he cringed and clutched his head. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Blasted Gale. I–I couldn’t… If... If I had just–” Cayden covered his face with his free hand, but she could still see tears trailing down his chin. “I’m… so sorry.”
Cayden’s focus had been razor-sharp while he was protecting her. His anger seemed to spark something that burned furiously inside him. But he wasn’t invulnerable.
For all of that confidence and strength he seemed to carry, he could still be as defenseless as anyone else. Especially when it came to someone he cared about.
And here he was, hurt. Because he’d worried about her.
She wrapped her arms around him.
“You did everything you could,” Jasmine said.
“No. I did everything wrong. It wasn’t enough.”
“It was enough. We’re alive. I’m safe.”
He was silent for a few moments before he sighed and leaned into her.
It was over… wasn’t it?
Once they had taken some time to regroup and triage their injuries, Captain Garner directed them to an inn. There was information to gather about the mission, and Jasmine spent hours briefing him on what she’d learned in Rampure. When there was no more to tell, the Captain dismissed both Cayden and Jasmine, telling them to wash up and rest in the adjacent room while he and Felicia discussed what objectives were left to accomplish before they returned to Shandera.
Jasmine walked the room’s length several times, periodically pausing to stare out the window. The whole ordeal was terrifying from the start, but she was surprised at how fiercely Cayden had acted toward Leyla.
No! She had to stop thinking like that.
He cared for someone else. She sighed. Mirna must be lucky.
The door opened and she whirled around in surprise, heart pounding. It was Cayden.
Luckily he hadn’t noticed how she’d nearly panicked. His gaze was on the floor instead, as he closed the door. It was nice to see him outside of his uniform or dress clothes. He had a fresh linen shirt and khaki-colored slacks. Usually, his cravat concealed his neck, but his collar was loose and the wrappings on his neck showed.
“Cayden, your bandages are wet!” Jasmine admonished, as she got up to look him over. A closer look at his shirt revealed that it was damp around his middle as well.
Cayden glanced up. “Sorry. I tried to avoid that. I wasn’t careful.”
Jasmine strode over to the bedside table and cleared it off. “They should be changed with fresh ones. What if it got infected?” she chided.
“It’s fine. It’ll dry.”
“No. Just sit. It’s not good and it’s going to bother me,” Jasmine directed. She started summoning what tools she would need for the task before he could complain. “I know how to do this. Just let me help. If the cloth over the injuries got wet, we should reapply the medicine before wrapping it again.”
“Sorry. Of course,” Cayden smiled. “Thank you.” He sat down on the bed and undid the gauze wraps from his neck.
Jasmine sat down behind him, legs crossed.
“This–this one’s really not that bad,” he said, tilting his head and exposing his neck so she could see the smaller injury better.
“You can’t tell me that,” she stated flatly, “You can’t even see it.”
He chuckled before wincing as she removed the cloth that held the ointment in place.
He wasn’t wrong about the cut. It wasn’t that bad and the bleeding had long since stopped. Now it was just another nick, like the ones on his hands. The one on his side, however... She needed to check that next. Her face heated as she realized that he would need to remove his shirt to examine the injury. There was something simultaneously exciting about this, but it was also heart wrenching. At least she could help him heal.
She’d felt so helpless in that warehouse. Her hand trembled as she gently cleaned the cut and reapplied the ointment.
“Jasmine?” Cayden asked.
“I was so scared,” she whispered.
His head tilted forward. “Everything is alright now,” he said softly, “You’re safe. These cuts will heal. Father’s leg had no major damage. We’ll go home soon…” His voice trailed off.
“I know,” she sighed, as she carefully placed some fresh gauze over his wound. She reached for the bandages.
“We’re alive,” his voice shook as he spoke.
The change in his voice made her concerned. “Cayden?”
“I’m sorry, Jasmine,” he said in a hushed voice, “I shouldn’t have come.”
“What? You just saved me!” Taken aback, she leaned to see his face, but he turned to avoid her gaze.
“No. I made it worse,” he said matter-of-factly. “I was arrogant, vengeful and… selfish. I almost cost us the mission. And everyone’s lives. Your life.”
“What could you possibly have done differently?”
Cayden grimaced. “The Prince… He gave you specific commands. We were told, if we say certain words, you’d then follow even an Exempt’s commands.”
“I was supposed to use them... but I… I couldn’t bring myself to,” his voice tightened, “I could have brought you to our parents, made you sleep. Tita Felicia could have created a Gale-sealed area for us to talk to you openly. Then Father would have been able to deal with that woman alone. With you safe and far away.”
He gripped his knees as he spoke, shaking slightly. “But I wasn’t careful. I spoke to you alone. Then she found us easy. That potential became useless. Then, at that building, what she said to you was because I provoked her. Then Father came in too soon because I’d lost it and shouted. I didn’t have a hold of you. I couldn’t stop you from defending her.”
His voice cracked, and it sounded as if he was fighting back tears. “Mistake after mistake. One thing after another. It’s my fault you fought Father. My fault the conflicts happened.” His voice shook, eyes not meeting hers. “None of that should have happened. And you were going to die, because of me. If she didn’t rescind the commands…I’m so sorry, Jasmine.”
“No one could have predicted those outcomes,” Jasmine said, “That wasn’t your fault.”
“It was… and I’ll never forgive myself for it. I… I knew how your father and uncle died… and yet…”
“I–it was brief. I’m fine now.”
“It was excruciating to watch. I can’t imagine how much pain you were in.”
She gently placed a hand on his back, shaking her head as she listened to him. It had been unbearably, unforgettably painful. But she was still here.
“Saints… if I’d… If I hadn’t… I wouldn’t have had to–” she heard him choke back a sob, “I–I’ve never–never killed before… before this.”
He hunched forward, taking large breaths.
“Jasmine…” he whispered after a moment, his voice in a near whisper. “When I struck her it felt natural, like training. But these weren’t practice blades. I hit the mark, but it slid in… she stumbled away and just… crumpled. Like a…” He shook his head before continuing, “Then… I realized I–I couldn’t wait for her life to end… I had to– I needed her to die. I struck again. Watched her life drain out. The light fade from her eyes… And I caused it. It felt… inhuman. It was… revolting. She didn’t even seem real at the end…”
“But you had to! You did it to save me.”
“I know, I know. But still… Father told me… I was warned… when I insisted on becoming a guard… But the experience of it…” He clenched his hands. “I felt so sick.”
“I aimed to be Head Captain, like him. To protect. But… Can I handle that? The responsibility of the lives and deaths of others? And yet… logically, this war will come to us anyways. Will we all have to…? Is this what it is to be a guard? A soldier? To fight? To protect? When I can’t even protect–” he cut himself off as he drew in a sharp breath.
After a moment of silence, Jasmine responded. “Cayden, you fight to protect the peace of our citizens and their future. You’ll be able to lead people without getting them hurt. You’ll be able to give good commands to your men. I know it. I… I’m–” ...I’m different.
You’re my doll.
Jasmine gasped and shivered. She leaned against his back, trembling. She needed some security. Cayden stiffened.
“Jasmine?” When she didn’t answer he asked again, “Jasmine, what’s wrong? What happened?”
Cayden turned to face her.
He offered his hand and she took it, her other hand gripping her chest, over her heart.
“She’s gone… isn’t she?” Jasmine asked, her breathing shallow.
“Yes. I made sure of it,” he assured her, “And your mother burned the remains. Is something–?”
“I–It’s my imagination then,” she squeaked.
He tightened his hold on her hand.
“I… I thought I heard her again… you know… ‘You’re my doll’...”
“Jasmine? Do you– Does anything she’d said linger with you?”
She looked up when she heard the anger flare up in his voice. He looked as if he was ready to fight again. But what was there to fight? The wind? Her memories? The inescapable fact that she was a Magician?
She looked away.
“I’m a Magician. You know the things she said. We aren’t… people. She said we were ‘broken.’ ‘Fake.’ ‘Splintered.’”
“Don’t hold onto anything that witch said. None of that is true. You’re real. You’re whole. Whatever happened affected Noblemen and Noblemen alone. It changed them. That woman wanted to use children against kingdoms! She was insane and you shouldn’t believe anything she said.”
“You talked of feeling inhuman. What am I? I almost killed your father on command. I was her knife! Her weapon!” she shouted. “The way Nobles can control us? There’s no balance there. Was there ever a balance? We’re just tools!” She needed to drive him away. There was no point in allowing him to be kind to a Magician, after all. Being entangled in a life with one would only bring him pain. Her accomplishments and attachments were meaningless.
“Please, look at me, Jasmine. What about your family? Can you honestly say the same things to me about Milan? Your parents? Tallin and Avian?”
Her chest heaved and her eyes watered, not acknowledging his rebuke.
He reached for her chin. “Please, look at me.”
His touch brought her back into the room. His eyes were clear and strong.
Jasmine swallowed and shook her head. She felt a tear trail down her cheek. “Of course not…”
Cayden sighed, seeming relieved. “Come here.” He turned to face her fully and beckoned her into an embrace.
She tucked her head against his neck, being careful of the wound on the other side. His arms felt strong as she clutched at his shirt.
He pressed his lips against the top of her head, rubbing her back gently. His warmth and care broke down her defenses just enough. Before she knew it, she started to sob uncontrollably. She was safe here.
She didn’t deserve–
“Jasmine, you mustn’t think like that, alright?” he said soothingly, “You and your family are not tools. We do as we’re told and we’re used for our skills. You’re the same as the other staff and guards and me.”
“After what that witch did to you, it’ll take time to recover. Please be kind to yourself. And I’ll say this however many times you need. You’re no one’s doll. You’re no one’s pet. You’re not a tool or a weapon to be used at someone else’s whim. That is not who you are. You’re Jasmine. And that is so much more.”
She was more?
“Being a Magician is just a part of you. I love that part of you, too.”
Her heart skipped a beat.
“Even without magic, you have skills and knowledge and experience that no one else has. Magicians don’t need Noblemen. You’re your own person.”
Every word he said reinforced a truth she knew, but had been shaken by Leyla. Unable to speak clearly through her sobs, she nodded. “I–I don’t know what I’d do if you had died,” she stuttered, “I–I don’t want you to get h–hurt because of me ever again.”
His hold on her tightened. “Same,” he whispered.
After a few minutes, she pulled back and wiped her face. “You should… turn back around. I–I didn’t finish replacing your bandages.”
He nodded and agreed. They sat in silence as she gently wound the wrappings securely around his neck and tied the bandage off.
“Now for your side,” she said.
He lifted his shirt to reveal the damp wraps allowing her to replace the bandages and gauze underneath with dry ones.
She pursed her lips as she worked, trying to ignore the fact that her ears and face felt warm. As she finished bandaging him, she wondered what it might be like if she could be with Cayden.
“Mirna’s a lucky girl,” Jasmine sighed as she secured the end of his bandaging.
“What was that?”
She stiffened and flushed. Had she said that aloud?
“What does Mirna have to do with…?” Cayden pulled his legs onto the bed and turned to face her. He seemed genuinely confused.
Jasmine shifted back a little. “I–I’m sorry. I don’t mean to get involved. It’s just, I heard… Well, I–I just was thinking… how lucky she was…” Jasmine stared at her hands. She felt her face grow hotter, “to have your… interest…”
“‘Interest’? Saints, no,” he laughed. “I don’t have any interest in her. We’re just friends.”
“If…” He swallowed and glanced away. “If I may be so bold… I… I’m interested in you.”
She shook her head in disbelief.
“No… You can’t– You shouldn’t… You…” Guilt and shame seemed to envelop her. “You had called yourself arrogant, vengeful and selfish… That’s not you. That’s me. After what this kingdom did… to my family… I went to the prince and princess myself and asked for this mission. I put myself and everyone else in danger. Everything that happened was my fault.”
That was right. He was just being nice. Or…
“Jasmine? Do you see me?” he asked, gently taking her hand to make sure he had her attention, “As you said… No one could have predicted what happened. If it’s not my fault, it wasn’t yours either.”
She bit her lip. “Why would you want me?”
“Show me your coin-purse.”
Unsure of how that would answer anything, Jasmine brought it out and poured the contents into her hand. A stone amulet stood out among the coins. The one she specifically crafted for Cayden years ago. The image of a shield with the Shanderan crest was embossed on the disk-like stone.
“After all this time? You kept it?”
“‘Kept it’?” He chuckled. “I don’t let go of it. Actually, I’d love to have it back if you don’t mind.”
Dumbstruck, she just moved her hand forward to offer it. He pulled it out from her coins and held it out in his palm.
“This small treasure you gave me made me realize how special you are. You saw what was important to me, and I never looked at you as anything more than ‘Milan’s little sister’. So as I got to know you better… As you, I… noticed I felt more…” he trailed off, with a slightly nervous chuckle. Cayden’s face flushed, his cheeks darkening.
“Tita said anyone’s wish could become an enchantment, so I… tried. After recognizing the effort you put in this,” he ran a thumb over the shield and sighed, “I tried to also put my heart into it. I gave it to you, hoping that it may help keep you safe. I must not have wished long enough or hard enough for it to be useful.”
“I must be asleep,” she muttered, overwhelmed. This was too right. “I-I’m not supposed to be the luckiest girl in the Dusk.”
“Jasmine. Jasmine, please,” he almost laughed with exasperation. “I love you. Don’t do this to yourself.”
Her mouth snapped shut and her heart felt as if it had stopped.
I love you.
Her heart swelled. There was no room for more silly doubts and what-ifs.
Jasmine couldn’t help but squeal with delight as she leapt into his arms, nearly knocking him off the bed with a hug, flinging the coins in her hand around the room. She didn’t care. She couldn’t stop giggling, and soon, Cayden was giddy as well. Intoxicated on their intermingling laughter and the dream-like atmosphere, she kissed him on the nose. His breathing seemed to hitch.
“I–I love you too, Cayden.”
He chuckled and grinned, seemingly unable to speak.
She pulled back enough to stare into his eyes, draping her arms around his neck.
Cayden’s eyes sparkled like the starry sky of the dark hour. A precious glimpse of beautiful, endless depths. She wanted to stay there forever.
“Your eyes,” he said breathlessly.
What about her eyes? She was busy falling into his. Oh, wait. The sparkles in his eyes were a reflection of hers. Her aura must have been positively radiant. She giggled at the realization.
He swallowed and offered a sheepish grin. “May I…?” he whispered, biting his lip.
“Yes please,” she breathed.
They leaned in toward each other, their arms gently wrapping tighter and let their lips touch. It was breathtaking, exciting and unbelievable. It made her feel warm from head to toe. It was just the two of them. She was safe in his arms.
As they pulled away from each other for air, he leaned his forehead on hers.
Jasmine watched as he blinked slowly and contentedly, as if he was about to fall asleep in her arms. His breathing seemed to be slow and steady.
“Cayden,” she said softly, “you’re exhausted.”
“I might be. But I don’t want to sleep now.”
She giggled. “Don’t be stubborn. You should rest.”
As if on cue, the eclipse started to move in, gradually dimming the room.
“Here.” Jasmine fluffed a pillow, stealing an extra off the other bed. “Lie down now. It’s been a long day,” she instructed, touching his shoulder to encourage him down.
“Could–could I ask you to stay?” he murmured.
“Of course. I’ll be here.”
She helped ease him into bed, carefully minding his wounds, and she tucked the sheets around him. There was something adorable about how he tried to keep his eyes on her while he drifted off into a peaceful sleep.
Everything was going to be okay. They would both be fine.