Jasmine stared at the stars above her head. The palace gardens were beautiful but she felt as though she did not belong there. The bushes were trimmed and the flowers were planted in neat little rows and it was so different to the wildness of the forest that she loved. All was at peace now. The Shadow Lands prisoners had been freed and, although there was devastating crop failures all throughout Deltora, she was certain that all would be well with the new harvest in the next moon cycle.
"Jasmine," called a voice and she sighed, hating the fact that the silence was disturbed, "Jasmine, where are you?" The voice sounded angry and weirdly familiar, although it was not Barda or Lief.
"I'm here," she called back, unwilling to move and she looked up as Ranesh came into view. She sent him a quizzical look. It was not often that Ranesh came searching for her. He sent her a small smile in return.
"It's past the curfew, Jasmine," he said simply and Jasmine rolled her eyes, annoyed all of a sudden. Lief had imposed a curfew on the city of Del, because there had been attacks in the town. Nothing dark and magical, like the Shadow Lord, but rather someone going around and murdering people whilst they were out. Lief was certain that he'd catch whoever was the culprit but the person had been incredibly sneaky and hard to find, so, for the safety of his people, Lief had guards patrolling the town and everyone was to be inside by the time there were seven stars in the sky. He had even introduced the curfew for the palace because he insisted that he could not ask his people to do one thing and blatantly disregard his ruling himself.
"I am in no danger here," Jasmine stated, "if Lief wishes me to come in, he may come get me himself."
Ranesh sighed, cursing the fact that he'd offered to do the job. Jasmine did not listen to anyone if she did not agree with what they were saying and Lief was the only one who could even get her to consider doing something she was not happy with. "Jasmine, the King is incredibly busy at the moment."
"Of course he is," Jasmine responded scathingly, "he's been 'busy' ever since we arrived back from the Shadow Lands."
"Jasmine, please, don't cause more trouble for him than necessary," Ranesh pleaded but Jasmine simply sniffed and turned her gaze away from him, back up to the stars. Ranesh groaned but soon she heard the sound of his footsteps as he walked away from her. She had won this battle, at least for the moment.
It was after a few more stars had brightened the night sky that she heard someone else coming out. She briefly wondered who Lief had sent out now but when she looked up, she was met with the cold eyes of the King, himself.
"Jasmine," he said coolly, "why must you cause so much trouble?" Jasmine frowned, his tone annoyed her. He had lost a lot of patience lately and got very annoyed at little things.
"I am causing no trouble," she said, shrugging, "I am enjoying being outside. You know how I hate being cooped up in the palace." Lief's eyes softened and he nodded, sitting on the ground next to her.
"I am very aware of how you feel," he said softly, "but I simply cannot make one law for my people in the town and another law for my friends and I in the palace. Everyone must obey the same rule or else people will start losing their faith in me."
Jasmine looked pointedly away from him, "I understand your reasons," she told him, "but I simply cannot bare being inside all day."
"You are only expected to be inside when there are seven stars out," Lief said quietly, "I do not think that is an unreasonable request, seeing as it is well past dinner time by the time there are so many stars out." Jasmine looked back up at the sky and saw it littered with stars. There must have been over a thousand. A lot had come whilst she'd been speaking to Lief.
"Alright," Jasmine said after a moment, "I shall come inside." She pushed herself up from the ground and Lief followed her example, giving her a grateful smile. On their way inside, he reached down to take her hand, an action he'd made several times before, but this time she moved her hand away, so all he grasped was air. He looked at her, shocked and hurt, but she ignored him and quickened her pace. She went through the palace doors before him and by the time he'd reached the entrance hall, she was nowhere to be seen.
Sighing, Lief walked towards the kitchen, intent on getting something to drink. His throat was quite dry from all the meetings he had had today. Upon entering the kitchens, he saw Paff standing there. When he entered, Paff squeaked in fear and dropped the cup that she was holding. Ranesh was leaving soon and Paff was to be his replacement as Josef needed help in his old age, but Paff was easily frightened and very nervous. It was very easy to get annoyed with her. Forcing a smile, Lief waved away her apologies. "Do not worry," he said kindly, "how about you head back to bed now? It's quite late. I'll take care of the glass." Paff nodded vigorously and quickly escaped from the room. Lief sighed as he knelt down and picked up the large fragments of glass, glad that it had not broken into small pieces. Once it had all been cleaned up, he took a new glass from the cupboard and poured himself some water from the pitcher that was filled every few hours.
"No," he heard voices arguing in the main hall and fell completely silent, listening. Normally, he would not do such a thing but he recognized the first voice as Barda's and the second as Doom's, "I will do no such thing."
Doom sighed loudly. It was surprising that such a quiet person could make such noise. Doom preferred to keep himself in private affairs and not get involved with people's lives, but it seemed as though he was making a special exception for Barda. "It must be done," Doom snapped, "people are dying. I know that Lief thinks he has it under control but he does not!" Lief found himself becoming quite angry. When he went into the town, people would always mutter about him under their breath when they thought he was not listening. They would always call him 'weak' and 'young,' and it infuriated him.
"Lief is trying his hardest," Barda snarled, "what else do you want him to do?"
"I want him to really clamp down. I had two more reports of deaths just from tonight. It's getting out of control. I say double the soldiers in the town."
"We have not got the spare manpower," Barda told Doom, "every soldier is already occupied, we cannot spare any."
"So introduce conscription," Doom snapped and Lief sighed, suddenly realizing what was going on. Doom had been trying to convince him that conscription would be a means to an end in an earlier meeting but Lief had completely refused. He believed strongly in people doing what they wanted and not being forced into anything.
"Have you spoken to Lief about this?" Barda demanded and Doom chuckled, darkly.
"Lief is young and ignorant," Lief swelled with anger again, "and as much as he tries, he cannot please everyone." Lief heard the voices getting softer, as Doom and Barda walked further away, still arguing. Lief was furious. He was not aware that Doom had such a low opinion of him. Slamming his glass down on the table, he stormed out of the kitchen and up the stairs, heading straight for his room. Upon entering, he silently seethed with fury. He had always thought that Doom respected him, but this proved that he had been misled.
Pulling off his shirt, he looked down and saw the belt on his bare waist. The gems were all bright except for the emerald, but that had been dull for a very long time. He sighed, brushing his hands against it, as though he could rub away the dullness, but, of course, nothing happened. Changing into his nightclothes, he wandered over to his bed and climbed in before he lay, staring at the ceiling and thinking. But his thoughts led him nowhere and soon he found himself drifting into a dreamless sleep.
Jasmine woke up early that morning and climbed out of bed, quickly getting changed into her ordinary attire. Filli chattered to her from the nightstand where she had made a small bed for him.
"I know," she said simply, "you are hungry. Shall we go to get some food?" Filli chattered his consent and she lifted him up onto her shoulder, where he relaxed into her neck, like he often did. On the way to the kitchen, she ran into Keith, one of Barda's soldiers. Keith was quite young for a soldier but he had already proved himself to be a brave warrior. He looked exhausted and Jasmine realized that he must have been patrolling the town during the night.
"My Lady," he said, nodding his head at her and she blushed. She hated people referring to her as though she was royalty when she was not. Everyone who was not her immediate friend did so and it infuriated her to no end.
"Keith," she nodded back and he gave her a tired smile, "any luck last night?"
"No," he sighed, pushing his hair back from his face with his hand, "but there was another murder, closer to the palace this time, in the upper town."
"And there is no leads?" Jasmine pressed and Keith shook his head in despair.
"There is not much more we can do, my Lady," he admitted, "the killer seems to disappear into the night. No one has ever even seen him entering a house where there has been a murder committed."
"Oh," Jasmine was not sure what to say, as she had no advice to give, "surely someone must have seen something?"
"No, and we cannot afford to post guards on every door in the town. We do not have that kind of manpower."
"Keith," a voice interrupted their conversation and Keith instantly knelt to the ground. Jasmine swiveled around and saw Lief standing on the stairs she had just descended, regarding Keith with a cool gaze, "how was patrol last night?"
"Another murder," Keith said, uncomfortably getting to his feet, "and this time it was of a child."
"A child?" Lief repeated aghast, "of what age?"
"Twelve," Keith murmured, "We are unsure of why he was out of his house but the killer struck in the upper town market." Lief paled, horrified. This was the first time that a child had been killed by the criminal, it had previously been adults and older teenagers.
"How did he die?" Lief demanded and Keith sighed, looking incredibly awkward.
"Blister poison," Keith replied.
Lief and Jasmine exchanged shocked glances. Surely the last of the blister poison had been destroyed when Lief had come to power and even if it had not, the destruction of Gellick, the toad who supplied it, would have ensured that there was no more of that vile stuff. "Are you sure?" Jasmine asked after a moment and Keith nodded.
"Deadly," he responded, "there is no mistaking it. The boy died in excruciating pain. It was his screaming that helped us find him." Jasmine felt ill. She had thought the days of fear were over, but someone had obviously stolen stores from the Shadow Lands, which, although now destroyed, did house plenty of the poison in secret stores.
"Okay," Lief said after a moment of silence, "thank you for the information, Keith, but you look tired, so go to bed." Keith nodded at Lief gratefully, bowed once more and disappeared down the corridor, towards the rooms where the palace guards slept.
"Lief," Jasmine demanded, "what do you think of this?"
"I do not know," Lief said simply "I must discuss it with…" Instantly he trailed off. He was about to say that he should discuss it with Doom, but the conversation he had heard last night was still on his mind.
Jasmine frowned, hurt that he had abruptly cut off his sentence, as though he could not trust her. "Well, good luck," she snapped scathingly and flounced off in the direction of the kitchens. Lief groaned, realizing that he had hurt her feelings but nothing could be done about that now. She would get over it. He looked down at his hands and saw that they were trembling. He was so sick of fighting but it looked as though peace was yet to be restored to his kingdom and he had to jump into action soon.
Shaking his head, he turned around and headed back upstairs, intent on going to the library and asking Josef's advice on the matter at hand. Once he had reached the third floor, voices from the monstrosity in the locked room at the end of the corridor invaded his thoughts.
Little King, the voice taunted and he shook his head, trying desperately to rid it of the horrible voice of the Shadow Lord, Give up now, you will never survive this fight.
"I won't go down without a fight," he muttered, under his breath.
The laughing invaded his subconscious and he gritted his teeth, Little, baby King, the voice mocked him, I have plans within plans. One way or another, you will fail. Even if you catch the culprit, your people will die of starvation. Lief stood stock still, listening grimly to the words.
"Lief?" a human voice interrupted his thoughts and he swiveled around to see Sharn, his mother, exiting the library, clutching a book under her arm. Sharn enjoyed reading and was making her way through many of the fiction books housed in the palace. Reading was not a pleasure she was able to enjoy whilst the Shadow Lord was in power, so she was taking full advantage of this opportunity. "Are you okay?"
"I am fine, mother," he said simply, "I have just come to inquire of Josef. Is he busy?"
"He is reading the annals again," Sharn smiled softly and Lief met her smile with his own weak one. Josef often read and reread the annals and Lief could never be sure of his purpose for doing so, but it kept the old man happy, so Lief never asked. Lief nodded at his mother and entered the library. The smell of old books instantly invaded his senses and he relaxed. He had always enjoyed the smell.
"Your majesty," a voice said and he turned to see Ranesh standing at the office door and looking at him, questionably, "can I be of any assistance?"
"I am looking for Josef," Lief told him, "do you know where I might find him?"
"Follow the sound of Paff," Ranesh smirked and Lief strained his ears and he could hear young Paff chatting away. "She enjoys distracting him from his work."
"Thank you," Lief nodded at Ranesh, who nodded back. Lief quickly disappeared into the stacks, following the sound of the girls loud voice. Josef and Paff were finally located at the very back of the library, where Josef was doing his best to ignore Paff's attempts at conversation. "Josef," Lief interrupted Paff and Josef looked up, shocked at his sudden appearance, "could I talk to you, in private?" Paff, understanding, quickly excused herself and disappeared into the shelves, no doubt looking for someone else to annoy, who would probably be Ranesh.
"What can I do for you?" Josef asked politely. It was not often that Lief came searching for answers in the library, preferring to find them some other way. Lief shifted from one foot to the other, quite nervously. Josef gave him a concerned look and Lief finally took a deep breath.
"I know this is an odd question Josef," Lief began carefully, "but you know blister poison? I was wondering if there was a way it could be created other than through Gellick, the guardian of the emerald? It's just that the killer seems to be using blister poison and Gellick was destroyed two years ago…" Lief trailed off and Josef gave him a sympathetic look. It had been one task after another for this young king and he was trying his best, but it was clearly wearing him down.
"I'll look into it," Josef said kindly and Lief nodded gratefully.
"Let me know," with that Lief turned around and walked quickly out of the library. On his way out he saw a flash of black hair downstairs that he immediately placed as Jasmine's. She was probably on the way to her bedroom. Taking a deep breath, he quickly ran down the stairs and down the corridor to her room just as the door was shutting. He knocked briefly and completely opened the door without any consent to come in. Jasmine looked up in shock and her gaze hardened when she saw who it was.
"What do you want?" She demanded and Lief took a step into the room, closing the door firmly behind him. She continued to look at him accusatorily and he took a deep breath and crossed over to her, so he was standing in front of her.
"Jasmine," he said simply, "I wish to apologise for my actions." Her eyes widened in shock. She had not expected this.
"What?" She asked dumbly, as though she had not heard. Lief reached down and clasped her hands in his and was relieved when, this time, she did not move away.
"I know I've been hurting you," he admitted quietly, "and it hurts me to hurt you because…" he trailed off and Jasmine raised an eyebrow.
"Because of what?"
Lief took a deep breath, he could not bring himself to admit his feelings for her. He dropped her hands and took a step back, leaving Jasmine looking bewildered. "Remember how I followed you when you went to the Os Mine hills?" He asked suddenly and Jasmine frowned but nodded. "Do you know why I followed you?"
"Because you had heard about the Pirran Pipe," she exclaimed, "and you wanted to save Deltora!"
Lief stared at her, trying to see if that was what she really thought, but her eyes were so wide and innocent that she could not possibly be lying to him. He nodded, "okay." With that he turned around and left a confused Jasmine gazing after him, even after the door had snapped shut.