Two of the robed figures came to her side and lifted her up onto the platform. Tong Li bade her to sit, cross-legged, facing him, and then he told her to look into his eyes.
Jasmine stared at his face, seeing only what the physical eyes could see. His white eyes were even more chilling up close. She shivered despite the warmth of the fire and the sultry night air.
The fire threw a sharp relief of the old man's wrinkled features, submerging his other half in inky blackness. As she continued to stare at him, the submerged side of his face became visible and she was able to see both sides of his face.
As she stared into his eyes, those white orbs of emptiness became filled with all the stars of the universe floating outwards, filling the void with their presence. She began to be extremely aware of her surroundings.
On her left was the man with the arrow in his cheeks, eyes closed and still as death. On her right was the bonfire and the circle of hooded men, with Anh Hai among their midst.
In front of her was the old blind man, still chanting—still chanting.
Behind her…behind her stretched the vast black emptiness of beyond.
The old man put a hand on her forehead and recited a few more lines. Then, he began to speak in a harsh whisper.
"Life is a cycle of learning. In learning, there is pleasure as well as pain. The pleasure comes from having learned a lesson well. The pain comes from errors made as you are learning."
"Your errors may harm, not just yourself but others around you. What you do is what you will. What you will is what takes shape as reality around you…"
The warmth from the fire on her right began to shift to her left. The cold wind at her back gradually diminished until it was blowing towards her.
And the bright lights coming from the old man's eyes were shining up above. Then, the atmosphere became temperate and the air was scented with honeysuckle and wild orchids. She heard children's laughter and the chirping of song birds.
The scene shifted in her eyes once again, making Jasmine dizzy. The women's faces transformed from living flesh to living petals of chrysanthemums. They looked huge but that was because she was down on the ground, on hands and knees, looking at the blossoms up close.
Jasmine could feel the driving heat of an arid dessert summer on her face and back. In her hands was a small raking tool and by her side was a large watering can made of light ceramic.
She was digging at what turn out to be an oblong root the color of toast. It would be mashed and dried for the treatment of arthritis pain.
How she knew that, Jasmine was only beginning to wonder. What surprised her was that she had a comprehensive knowledge of all the plants growing in the garden patch, and knew that they were medicinal plants and not just a floral garden.
Her time in court had not been wasted with boring politics. She had spent it alongside the court healer who had surreptitiously trained her in the art of herbal healing.
"You've been requested at the Queen's Chambers by the Royal Advisors. They are looking for you," a voice called out from above the floral herb patch.
Jasmine continued to weed her medicinal garden without pausing.
"What do those old geezers want with me? They know I don't know anything about running the country."
"No, Princess. This time it sounds more serious. I think you need to come with me please." The handmaiden implored with urgent eyes.
Sighing, Jasmine rose from her crouched position among the tender shoots. She brushed the loose dirt from her lap and hands and looked down at her brown work skirt that she had taken from one of her handmaids.
"I'm not really dressed for a formal meeting with the Queen, but I'm not going to change into formal wear for just a few minutes of inane chatter with those old men."
"If you please, Your Highness. I don't think you have the time." The handmaiden was almost in tears.
"What is going on, AiLy?"
"The Queen. She is in trouble!"
Jasmine sprang up from the ground, knocking over the watering can.
As the water gushed into the ground, turning the soil into a muddy mess, AiLy yanked on her hand and the two young women flew across the flower garden, towards the Queen's Chambers.
Once Jasmine got closer, she could hear the wailing of many voices. It sounded as if someone had just died!
Jasmine threw open the doors and ran in.
The Queen's chamber was a large affair with gilded walls and cushioned seats along the walls. The Queen's throne was up against the main wall but nobody was seated there.
The Queen herself was lying prostrate on the floor in the middle of the chamber, surrounded by her twelve Ladies in waiting. Four Royal Advisors were standing around wringing their hands, their faces panicked.
"The King is dead!" The Queen shrieked. "I saw his hands and face. He has been poisoned!!! Sister, what do I do???"
"Oh my Queen! This is no time to lament!" Jasmine cried. "Quickly! You have to get out of here!"
She pulled the Queen up from the floor and rallied the Ladies around her.
"Take her Royal Robes off!" She hissed.
"You." She pointed to the nearest Lady in waiting. "Take your outer robe off and help her put it on. Quickly! We don't have much time."
As the women struggled to do what Jasmine ordered, she began moving the entire group towards the back.
"Get her out through the back window. Don't let anyone see you!"
"My jewels!!!" The Queen held out her hand.
"No time." Jasmine "I will bring them to you later, Sister Dear. Go now!"
The Queen nodded and followed the four Royal Advisors and the Ladies in waiting through the curtained window.
Jasmine turned back to as the sound of marching feet thundered at the door.
Soldiers dressed in black marched up and banged on the door with the butt of their swords. With one swift kick, they had broken down the doors and rushed in.
"Where is the Queen?"
"How dare you break into the Queen's Chambers in such beastly manner??? Leave this instant!" She pointed at the doorway. The soldier laughed.
"You're just the Queen's little sister. Now that her husband is dead, she's no longer queen and you're no longer a Princess."
"I am a Princess because my father is a King. It has nothing to do with whether the King is dead or alive!" She yelled back.
It was all false bravado.
With her family a week's worth of travel time away from the capital, and without the King's protection, she was just as good as dead if they chose to kill her.
"Hmmm. This girl is really pretty, and a real Princess too!" The soldier guffawed. "Let's take her for ourselves! The new King is not going to know and he's not going to care—eeerggghhhh!!!"
He choked as a blade plunged out through the front of his throat.
"Your Majesty!" Everyone dropped to the floor.
Jasmine gasped as she stood, face to face, staring at the man who had just driven his sword through the soldier's throat.