The stick made a whirring sound as it spun in the notch cut into the piece of flat wood that was serving as a base. Friction of the two woods rubbing against each other created heat, and the heat continued to build as the stick continued to spin. Soon the heat was enough to start burning the wood, and a thin tendril of smoke rose into the air.
Jasmine continued spinning the stick for another minute to be sure that she had enough heat, then set aside the stick, fire bow, and the piece of bark she’d been using to protect her hands and quickly transferred the ember in its nest of hot ashes from the base piece of wood to the small pile of dry grasses she had waiting. Some gentle blowing turned the ember into a tiny flame, and then a few minutes careful tending turned that flame into a cheery campfire.
Jasmine sat back and dusted off her hands, then pulled the chubby hare she’d caught into her lap and began skinning it. It was mostly luck that she had the hare at all; she’d happened to spot it grazing in a patch of clover to one side of the road she’d been walking, so she’d drawn her dagger and taken a throw at it. The dagger wasn’t balanced for throwing, and even if it had been, knife-tossing wasn’t her best skill, so she’d been almost as surprised as the hare when the dagger struck home – more surprised, actually, since the hare didn’t live long enough to wonder what had happened.
Still though, when one is traveling alone without provisions or money, one doesn’t turn one’s nose up at any edible miracles the Author might Write one’s way.
With the hare skinned and cleaned, Jasmine speared it on a stick and built a crude spit to roast it. She knew she should have waited for the fire to burn down to coals first, but that would take time, and the hare would take too long to cook as it was. She was willing to put up with it being uneven if it meant that she could wrap herself around it sooner.
Once the hare was roasting Jasmine collected the offal and took it several yards into the woods to bury it. She also took the opportunity to scour the area around her roadside camp for any wild edibles. After an hour or so, she’d managed to collect a decent enough selection of plants and roots to supplement the hare, and she’d chanced upon some edible mushrooms in the hollow of a half-rotted tree stump. She was in the process of picking the biggest ones when she heard people approaching on the road. Deciding she had enough, Jasmine returned to her camp, set her finds down beside the fire, and began sorting through them – she had a little while yet before the pack of intruders came into sight.
In fact it took almost ten minutes, which was longer than she’d expected. Her ears were shaper than most people’s, but they usually only gave her five or six minutes’ warning in situations like this. Either the group heading her way wasn’t in any hurry, or they were unusually loud.
Both, she decided as she spotted them cresting the hill she’d camped at the base of. There were three of them she saw, and without the hill in the way she could hear them laughing and joking well enough to identify them as young men – probably not much older than twenty – most likely from one of the small farming villages that speckled this area.
They were still over two hundred yards away when Jasmine spotted them – her eyesight was also sharper than normal – and so she watched them swagger down the hill as though they owned the world. They were more than halfway down the hill before they spotted her, and even then it seemed to take them another dozen yards or so to realize the only person in the camp was a woman. Once they did they grew quieter and began scanning the surrounding woods for anyone else.
Once they were within comfortable hailing distance, Jasmine stood up, dusted herself off, and stepped up to the roadside to stand between her camp and the approaching boys and folded her arms beneath her breasts.
“Ho, travelers! Who goes?” She challenged.
The boys kept looking around, but one of them answered her.
“We are men of J’rash, on our way to Braa-Ashon to join the army.”
Jasmine nodded; it wasn’t really surprising. Most of the farming villages tended to be quiet and isolated, and so their young people had a tendency to catch wanderlust and leave at a fairly young age, with the army being a popular destination. Odds were these boys had decided that they were mature enough to leave the nest, and so they’d set out in search of honor and glory. And, odds were, they’d probably be back home much humbler before spring.
The boys stopped less than five yards from her camp.
“Are you all alone out here, Miss?” One of them asked.
“Yes, I am. And, no, I don’t need you to protect me.”
The boys exchanged glances, clearly taken a little aback by such boldness from a lone woman. They seemed to hesitate for a few moments, but then their egos – not to mention their libidos – won out and they began moving towards her.
“Are you sure about that, Miss?” The one that seemed to be the ringleader said in a slightly dangerous voice. “This area ain’t safe. ‘Specially not for a woman alone. I think it’d be best if you stayed close to us.”
“Oh, yeah.” One of the other’s chuckled unpleasantly. “Real close.”
Urged on by his two friends, the leader started to reach for Jasmine, and Jasmine unfolded her arms and began to go into a fighting stance; however a voice from her left interrupted both of them.
“Hold right there, you villainous curs!”
Jasmine had made camp in a miniature valley where the road came down a gently sloping hill to the south-east and then started up a much steeper hill to the west. The three boys had come from the south-east, thus giving Jasmine plenty of time to study them. The newcomer had come from the west, meaning that Jasmine – who had been a little distracted at the time – hadn’t had any warning at all before he spoke, so she joined the three boys in looking up in surprise at the figure framed against the darkening evening sky.
Whether he’d planed it that way or not Jasmine didn’t know, but the stranger certainly cut a dashing figure; backlit by the sky, which was still reflecting the last rays of the setting sun, with his slightly-more-than-shoulder-length slightly-curly hair blowing in the light south-west breeze, and just enough light falling on his face to highlight the stern set of his jaw and the angry glint in his eye, he looked like a hero stepped out of a legend. Enhancing the image was the large dog at his side, with its short coat almost glowing gold in the fading light, the faint ivory glint of its teeth as it just bared its fangs, and the low base rumble of its growl.
The man and dog looked down just long enough for the full effect to sink in, then they started slowly down the hill and the man drew his sword and pointed it at the boys below.
“If you lay but one finger upon the maiden, by the Quill I shall cause you to curse the day you crawled forth from your mother’s wombs. Flee now; you taint the air I breathe with your every breath. Flee! Be gone, as you value your despicable live––!”
The man cut off in mid-word as he caught his foot on some unseen protrusion in the otherwise even road and fell flat on his face. He didn’t stop there, either; as the slope of the hill brought his head lower than his feet, his legs rose up and flipped him over his head and onto his back, which brought his feet back lower than his head, and started him in a head-over-heels tumble down the hill and straight toward the stunned watchers at the bottom. The three boys took a mute step backward, and the man rolled like a deformed wheel straight between them and Jasmine, off the road, and then straight into a tree. As his face collided with the bark his entire body went stiff, then he slumped to the side, unconscious.
Jasmine and the boys stared at the man’s still form for a handful of seconds, then looked up and exchanged bewildered looks.
“Well,” Jasmine said after a moment. “That was unexpected.”
Before the boys could respond, she took a long step forward with her left foot, then launched a forward snap kick with her right that caught the leader in the groin. As he folded around the injured member she recovered her foot, then kicked again, this time connecting with his descending chin. His teeth slammed together with shattering force, and blood spurted from his mouth – though whether it was from a broken tooth or from biting his lip or tongue she didn’t know. His eyes crossed, then seemed to roam aimlessly for a second before they rolled up into his head and he fell to the ground.
The other two boys stared down at their leader in shock, but Jasmine didn’t give then a chance to recover. Stepping closer, she grabbed the second boy’s shirt and dragged him toward her with her left hand, even as her right elbow flashed out and smashed into the bridge of his nose, breaking it and dropping him head and shoulders first on his back.
The third boy had just managed to gather enough of his wits to start to turn to flee, but Jasmine’s hand flashed out and caught him by his hair. A relatively light kidney punch from her other hand caused him to arc his back in pain and put him off balance enough that a little downward pull on his hair dropped him to his knees. Stepping closer and planting one knee in the middle of his back, Jasmine pulled down on his hair hard until he was as close to folded in thirds as an intact human could get – at least and still be alive.
“Take your friends and leave.” Jasmine said, sticking her face less than an inch from his. “If any of you ever bother me again, I won’t be so gentle with you. Got that?”
The boy nodded as best he could with his skull pinned to his scapula, so Jasmine released him. Grimacing in pain as he moved he scrambled to his feet and grabbed his unconscious friends, then started dragging them back the way they’d come. Jasmine kept them pinned with her gaze all the way back up the hill until they disappeared over the crest. Only then did she turn to see the would-be hero’s dog – a mastiff, she noted, and one that had to weigh close to two hundred pounds and stood nearly as high as her hip – sitting by his master’s side and looking up at her as he slowly wagged his tail.
“I say, luv; jolly good show!” He said in a resonant baritone with a crisp, upper-crust accent. “Not exactly Marquis of Queensbury Rules, but a fine display of pugilism nonetheless, eh wot?
For the first time in her life, Jasmine was totally and completely dumbfounded. Her jaw felt as though it fell at least a quarter mile, and all she could do was stare. Seeing her expression, the dog chuckled and shook his head – like a human, not like a dog.
“No, luv; you’ve not lost the Plot – al least no more than you had a moment ago. No, I truly can talk.” He stood and bowed an elegant leg. “Lord Tobias of Taass, at your service, My Lady.”
Jasmine closed her mouth and shook her head in an effort to recover her wits.
It didn’t help much.
“Uhhh . . . pleased to meet you . . . I guess. I’m Jasmine. Jasmine Brave.”
Lord Tobias raised a dark-spotted eyebrow.
“Of the Freelancer Braves? Well then, this is indeed a pleasure.” He glanced at the man on the ground and sighed. “As much as I hate to impose upon a lady, do you suppose you could help me tend to this lump? While I suppose I could lick his wounds, any other tending is deucedly difficult for me. No thumbs, you see.” He held up one large – and thumb-less – paw to demonstrate.
Grateful for the sanity of a simple physical task, Jasmine helped drag the unconscious man over to her camp and tended to his injuries – which mostly consisted of a streaming nosebleed and a few scrapes. She also took the opportunity to study him.
He was young, probably no older than twenty, with features that were somehow strong and sculpted and gentle at the same time. He was dressed in well tailored traveling clothes, but they showed signs of hard wear. His boots and leggings were dust stained, there were several small tears and stains across the rest of his outfit, and he showed the faint marks of having fallen in a brook or something and simply dried off as he walked.
Her conclusion? A pampered rich boy staggering around the woods without a clue what he was doing. The fact that he was still alive and in more-or-less one piece was probably due to the skills of his dog.
. . . Which brought her mind back to that rather interesting question.
Jasmine watched Lord Tobias carry the man’s sword back from where he’d dropped it when he tripped while she considered how to ask. Once he’d slipped the sword back into its sheath on the man’s hip she cleared her throat.
“Um, excuse me; Lord Tobias? I was wondering . . .”
“How a dog came to speak like a gentleman?” He finished with an amused lifting of his ample lips. “Good breeding, good education, and a magic spell. I’d be happy to tell you the details, but it’s a rather long and sordid story. Would you care to hear it?”
Jasmine nodded and Lord Tobias sat and cleared his throat.
“Well, to begin at the beginning, this lad” he nudged the unconscious man “is Crown Prince Robert Alexander Bariton Colloss IX, heir apparent to the throne of Taass – that’s a city-state a week or so south-west of here, in case you haven’t heard of it.”
Jasmine blinked in surprise, but Lord Tobias answered her question before she could ask it.
“I know what you’re thinking. ‘Why is a Prince, least of all a Crown Prince, stumbling about the woods with naught but a dog as an escort?’ Well, that, luv, is the end of that sordid tale I mentioned. The beginning was nineteen years ago at Master Robert’s christening. As is tradition, his parents invited a soothsayer to give the infant Prince a blessing for the rest of his life. The soothsayer, an old boy who had to be pushing one hundred – though from the other side, if you know what I mean – came and before the entire court he gave a blessing for a long life filled with happiness, wisdom, and nobility and longsuffering of spirit. That’s where all our troubles started.”
“Why?” Jasmine asked. “It sounds like a perfectly good blessing to me. Unimaginative, maybe, but not bad.”
“Oh, you’re exactly right, luv. The problem was that the old coot was so blind that he completely missed the Prince’s cradle and blessed me by mistake.”
Jasmine blinked, then gave a soft “oh” as she began to understand; then, in spite of herself, she clapped a hand to her mouth in an effort to stifle a fit of giggling.
Lord Tobias grinned at her – an expression that was almost a snarl, yet the gleam of humor in his eyes was too unmistakable for it to be anything but an expression of amusement.
“Oh yes, it was a jolly good blessing, indeed. I was four years old when it happened, and I’m still fit as a fiddle nigh on twenty years later; I’ve never lacked for food or amusements, and I can speak a fair sight better than most humans, if I do say so myself; and if following this young buck about for the most of two decades and pulling him out of all the trouble he lands himself in doesn’t count as ‘nobility and longsuffering of spirit,’ than dash it all if I know what does!”
Jasmine managed to shift her annoyingly girlish giggles into less annoying chuckles, and Lord Tobias chuckled with her.
“Oh, and it get’s worse! The old boy was not only blind as a bat, he was also so deaf that every time someone told him ‘you blessed the dog’ he thought they said ‘this blasted fog,’ and so he spent most of the night trying to clear fog out of the Grand Ballroom. Of course when he thought to open a window and mistook the Queen’s skirts for draperies, well . . . you can imagine.”
Indeed, Jasmine could, and the mental image of the well-meaning-but-utterly-hopeless old soothsayer trying to draw open the indignant Queen’s elaborate skirts caused her to laugh so hard that she began to fear injuring herself. Lord Tobias also chuckled and shook his head at the memory, but once they both had a little more control of themselves he continued.
“Needless to say, the King and Queen didn’t take that so well – especially the Queen, as I recall. I’m afraid they got into a bit of a row with the old boy, and he stormed off in a bit of a huff.” He snorted in wry amusement. “That would have been all well and good, except that he tripped over the Prince’s cradle on his way out. I can only guess that he must have though it was a person he’d tripped over, because he turned and uttered the words that rather neatly topped off the night’s disasters: ‘You clumsy oaf! May fortune always laugh at your expense!’ And with that he vanished into the night before anyone could stop him and was never seen nor heard from again.”
Jasmine wiped at the corners of her eyes, still chuckling a little.
“I see. So the Prince has been unlucky ever since?”
Lord Tobias nodded.
“That’s right. The next day when his nurse put him down for a nap, the mobile over his cradle broke loose and fell on him; and that set the par for the rest of his life. No matter what precautions we take, if it can go wrong around him, it most likely will. We’ve tried everything to help him, but the best that we’ve been able to manage was a spell to help him recover from his injuries faster – you’ll note he’s already nearly healed from that knock to the head just now.” Tobias shook his head sadly. “It’s truly tragic, he’s a good lad, with a good head on his shoulders, and heart enough for any two normal people, but I’ve yet to see him manage to lace up his own boots without getting his finger caught in the knot.”
“Okay, that explains you and his, shall we say . . . memorable entrance; but it doesn’t explain what the two of you are doing out here. Frankly he sounds like the kind to lock up in a padded room for his own safety.”
Before the mastiff could respond, the Prince groaned and opened his eyes. He blinked a few times, seeming to have trouble focusing, but then his eyes settled on Jasmine’s face and slid into focus. His eyes widened slightly as he stared at her, then he swallowed slightly and spoke in a hesitant, almost reverent voice.
“Are . . . are you . . . an angel?”
Jasmine snorted rudely and rapped on the Prince’s forehead hard enough to make him wince.
“Not hardly. Sorry, pal, but you ain’t dead. Yet.” She stood up, dusted herself off, and then returned to her fire and the roasting hare, part of her realizing that she was being rude, but something about the guy set her on edge.
The Prince stared after her, then turned to Lord Tobias.
“What happened, Tobias? Where are those ruffians?”
“Well, Master, to answer your second question first, the lady over there dealt with those three louts quite nicely.”
The Prince blinked.
“As I live and breathe.” The mastiff confirmed proudly. “Dropped the first two in hardly a tick, then bullied the third into cleaning up the mess. He’s probably still dragging them away and glancing back to see if she’s following.” He chuckled, then sighed, which made his exaggerated jowls vibrate. “As for what happened to you, well . . . you tripped.”
“I tripped?” The prince asked, as though making sure that he’d heard right.
“Dash it all if I know what you tripped on, but you took a right tidy little tumble down the hill and fetched your face against that tree there.”
The Prince sighed, sat up, and rubbed his face. Then he turned and bowed to Jasmine as best her could while sitting in the dirt.
“I’m dreadfully sorry, My Lady, for causing such a deplorable scene. You must think me a hopeless dullard, unequal to even the meanest of tasks.”
“To put it mildly.” Jasmine said wryly. “Still, Lord Tobias explained your situation, so I guess I can’t exactly blame you.”
“You are truly generous, dear Lady.”
Jasmine cut him off.
“I said I can’t blame you. Not don’t want to; can’t. Get the difference?”
The Prince opened and closed his mouth a few times – looking a little fish-like as he did – clearly at a loss for words, but then his faithful hound came to his rescue.
“Oh, Bloody Waste, where are my manners. “Lady Brave, allow me to officially introduce you to Crown Prince Robert of Taass. Master Robert, it is my pleasure to make know to you Lady Jasmine Brave, of the Freelancer Brave clan of Arsenal-warriors.”
Prince Robert climbed to his feet and bowed more formally.
“My Lady. It is always the greatest of pleasures to meet a lady of your quality.”
Jasmine looked up at him, and her eyes flashed like heated iron struck by a smith’s hammer.
“’Quality,’ is it? What do you think I am? A wheel of cheese? A bottle of wine? A pretty little filly you can purchase for your stables?” Her voice was cold and dangerous, and the Prince recoiled in shock – and no small amount of fear. He started to try and stammer out an apology, but she didn’t let him. She shot to her feet, crossed to him in two strides, and slammed her finger into his chest like a dagger aimed at his heart.
“Well I’m not! I’m a warrior! A proud warrior from a proud warrior family! After that I’m a person, same as you! Then, and only then, am I a woman. Got that?! Warrior, person, then woman! Forget it again and by the Sacred Ink I’ll make you regret it!”
She spat on the ground, then whirled around and returned to the fire, leaving a dumbfounded Prince to stare at her back and rub the forming bruise on his breastbone. He exchanged glances with Lord Tobias, who gave him an expectant look and nodded at Jasmine. Robert sighed, then stepped a little closer and fell to one knee respectfully.
“My Lady, once again I find myself begging your pardon. I intended no offence, I assure you. I acted as I had been taught, though now I can see how such language would be demeaning to one such as you. I shall guard my tongue more closely in the future, both with you and with any other women I should meet.”
Jasmine glared over her shoulder at him for a second, then sighed in irritation. Bad first impression or no, the guy seemed decent enough – though he was clearly stupid – so she decided to cut him some slack.
“All right, fine, just stand up already. And drop the formality; you’re making me feel like some old noble hag. I’m just Jasmine.”
Robert stood up and smiled.
“I’ll accept that on the condition that you extend us the same courtesy. I am Robert, and this is Tobias.”
“Fine; rattling off titles makes my tongue cramp anyway. Go ahead and have a seat.” She waved at the ground across the fire from her. “Tobias explained about your curse, but you woke up before he could explain what the two of you are doing out here all alone.”
Robert sat down across from her and shrugged.
“We’re looking for a way to break the curse.” He said, dropping into a casual mode of speech as promised. “Ever since I was a kid, people have treated me like I’m made of glass. Everything that could be done for me was; my training was carefully managed and supervised, and every conceivable risk in every aspect of my life was guarded against, yet somehow I’d still manage to get hurt. I lived my whole life watching my step and worrying about the curse, until one day I woke up and realized that I wasn’t a kid anymore. I realized that I could never rule a kingdom – even a small one like Taass – if I couldn’t even deal with a little bad luck. I thought long and hard about it, and decided that I was going to have to find a way to deal with the curse on my own.
“My parents weren’t happy, as you can imagine. They’d already expended considerable resources trying to break the curse to no avail, so that meant that I’d have to go out into the world and simply trust to the Author’s whims to lead me to an answer. It took three weeks to convince them to let me go.”
Tobias chuckled from where he lay beside the fire.
“Actually it took him getting caught trying to sneak out of the city ten days running.”
Robert grinned, then returned to the story.
“Well, even then they wanted me to bring along a veritable army of retainers, but I refused on the grounds that I could never learn to fend for myself if I wasn’t actually left to do it. It took another week of arguing –“
“Not to mention a few literally royal tantrums.” Tobias cut in
“– but we eventually compromised on having Tobias come with me, since he’s been my friend, protector, and confidant since I was a baby.”
“Actually, we were supposed to bring one bodyguard as well, but three days out of Taass he got drunk and started a rather nasty brawl over another man’s wife. Given the circumstances, we elected not to post his bail and left him twiddling his thumbs in the town’s prison.”
“Probably a good idea.” Jasmine said, nodding. “Guys like that tend to cause more problems as time goes on. So, why don’t you have any baggage? I’d think they’d at least give you a change of clothes.”
Robert and Tobias shifted a little uncomfortably.
“They did, but . . .” Robert trailed off.
“Our pack horse took fright at something or other earlier today. Stupid beast plunged straight into the river and was swept away along with all out baggage. Including our food.”
Jasmine noticed the way they were both pointedly not looking at the roasting hare, and gave an exasperated sigh.
“Fine. I’ll share.”
The two males were very grateful, and insisted on helping her finish setting up camp while the hare finished cooking. Of the two, Tobias proved to be the more useful – even without thumbs – because Robert tended to bungle even the simplest of tasks. What with having to deal with him and his mistakes, it took them until the hare was done enough to eat to finish, and the stars and long come out.
Still, they were all grateful for the food and ate their portions of the hare – as well as the wild edibles Jasmine dolled out to supplement the meat – without speaking. Tobias was the first to finish, and once he’d crunched down the last of his bones he stood and stretched, then sat and gave Jasmine a serious look.
“Jasmine, my dear, I have a proposal I’d like you to consider.”
“I’m sorry, My Lord.” Jasmine said sweetly. “You’re handsome, noble, cultured, polite, and charming, but I’m afraid that I simply feel it’s too soon for me to be getting married now.”
“I see. Perhaps in a few years then. Seriously though, I meant a business proposal.”
“Oh?” Jasmine cocked an eyebrow.
“Yes. As you’ve seen, Master Robert is rather hopeless on his own.” Robert shifted a little at this, but didn’t argue. “I can protect him from many threats, hunt for him to an extent, and help him in many ways; however I can’t take the place of a skilled teacher and reliable guardian. As I understand it, the Brave clan prides themselves on swearing fealty to neither lord nor land, but rather serving as freelance warriors and offering their swords to whatever cause offers them a fair price and an honorable fight. Is that correct?”
“So are you saying you want to hire me?”
“That’s right. Your woodscraft is clearly excellent, your fighting skill is superb, and I’d be willing to bet my tail that you have not only the knowledge, but the wisdom as well to teach Master Robert how to get by. That alone would be reason enough, but despite my charm and wit, I am still, first and foremost, a dog.” He thumped his tail on the ground as though to emphasize the point. “And we dogs are excellent judges of human character. I truly believe that you are just the person to help Master Robert.
“So, will you consider it?”
“Hang on, Tobias.” Robert said before Jasmine could respond. “We can’t ask her to come with us when we don’t even know where we’re going or what trouble we might get into. Quests of this sort always lead to many horrible dangers, and I wouldn’t feel right dragging a lady I’d just met into that. Besides, I’m sure Miss Jasmine has business of her own that brings her out here. We can’t just pull her away from that.”
Jasmine shot Robert a look that was like a pair of cold steel nails.
“I’m out here in the tradition of my forefathers to find the Arsenal. However, since the Arsenal can’t be found deliberately, what it basically amounts to is that I’m just wandering about aimlessly, and more or less literally looking for trouble and danger. So from that perspective, it doesn’t really matter whether I wander alone or with others. So, you could say that it really isn’t a question of ‘where,’ but of ‘why?’ As in ‘Why should I saddle myself with a bungling idiot of a Prince and his talking dog?’”
“Because despite the tough face you choose to show, you are a lady with a noble spirit and a caring heart.” Tobias answered. “And now that you’ve seen our situation, sending us merrily on our way at the mercy of the Master’s curse would cause you pangs of conscience that would eat you alive for literally whole minutes.”
The mastiff’s tone was perfectly innocent and Jasmine gave him a mildly annoyed look, but in spite of herself her lip twitched in the general direction of a smile.
“Alright, fine.” Jasmine said after a moment. “I’ll let you tag along. But if we’re doing this, then we’re doing this my way.”
“But of course, luv; name your terms.” Tobias said cheerfully.
“First; I’m not going to carry you or baby you. You’ll both carry your own weight.”
“Of course.” Tobias said. “In point of fact, that’s something I would have insisted upon had you not. What else?”
“Second; there’ll be no whining. If I tell you to do something, you do it quickly and without complaint.”
“And third; if you guys prove to be too much trouble for me, I can ditch you at any time. Got that?”
“Indeed. Master Robert?”
Robert looked as though he wasn’t sure whether he should be upset or happy, but he nodded.
“Alright then, as my first order of business as your official instructor . . .” She stood up and circled the fire, then gave Robert a swift crescent kick that caught him across the face and spun him halfway around and dropped him to the dirt. “That’s for forgetting what we already talked about. I’ll let you off easy since you’re not used to me yet, but this is the only time I’ll be so nice. Push me too far and I’ll start breaking your bones, got it?”
Robert pulled his face out of the dirt and turned to look at her with a surprised and hurt expression – emotionally hurt, that is, though his cheek was clearly causing him a good bit of discomfort.
“Got it?” Jasmine asked again, a dangerous note in her voice and eyes.
Robert swallowed then nodded.
“Good.” Jasmine returned to her place and sat down. “Then all that’s left is to figure out where we’re going from here.”
“Master Robert and I had intended to go to Braa-Ashon to purchase fresh supplies.” Tobias said.
“I had pretty much the same idea. Braa-Ashon’s three days from here though, so we should get to sleep now so we can be up at first light tomorrow.” With that she stood up, dusted herself off, crossed to the bed of leaves she’d gathered, and lay down with her back to the two males.
Robert and Tobias crossed to the second of the two leaf beds – set across the fire from Jasmine’s – and lay down as well, with Tobias laying across one end and Robert pillowing his head on the dog’s wide flank. He still rubbed his stinging cheek as he listened to the base drum beat of the mastiff’s heart and the dull roar of his breathing; they were both sounds he knew from childhood, and they were actually more comforting to him than his mother’s voice.
“Tobias,” he said quietly after a few minutes. “Are you sure about this?”
“You mean about bringing Jasmine along?” The dog responded just as softly. “Yes. I meant everything I said. I can’t put my paw on it, but something about her tells me that she’s just the person to help you. Do you have a problem with her? Besides her violent tendencies, I mean.”
“No, of course not. If she’s half of what the stories of her family claim then she’ll be perfect. It’s just . . . “
“It’s just that she is a beautiful and capable woman, and you’re smitten with her.” Tobias said bluntly when Robert trailed off. “And you’re afraid that you’ll make a proper fool of yourself with her if she accompanies us. Am I right?”
Robert groaned and draped his arm over his eyes.
“Not that I haven’t already done a pretty good job of that. I suppose this is the latest manifestation of the curse: introducing me to the most beautiful woman ever, even letting her come with us, and yet making it so that she will be forever unreachable.”
“I think it’s a touch arrogant to assume that she was born for the express purpose of tormenting you.” Tobias said dryly.
“I know that, but she’ll still do a pretty good job of it. I mean, just look at her! Her skin is like silk with the color of bronze, and it’s so perfect that the sun and moon fight to caress it with their light. The earth gave up two perfect sapphires to form her eyes, and the night sky surrendered its hundred brightest starts to light them. For ten thousand years at least the trees have competed every autumn to see which could produce the purest auburn hues and golden highlights to form her hair, and the spirits of music competed to have the honor of being her voice. If the Author Wrote the world with Words, then He Wrote her with a poem! She is absolutely and totally perfect in every way but one: she’s an absolute lunatic!”
Jasmine suddenly sat up, whirled around, and pitched a pinecone snatched from the ground at Robert, striking him hard in the temple.
“And she’s got good ears, too!” She snarled, then threw herself back down on her bed.
Tobias looked down at his prince, who rolled on the ground clutching at the rapidly forming knot on the side of his head.
“She’s not a bad shot, either.” He said unsympathetically.