“Well now… what have we here?” Jasna could hear a smile in the voice, but it certainly held no warmth. From the corner of her eye, she could see the others, similarly held in place by more shoots of bloodvine. Directly beside her, Brynne shifted, and then sucked in a sharp breath.
“I believe you were told not to struggle.”
“I was shifting because I had a — ow!”
“Brynne!” Katarin hissed.
“What? She— ow!”
“If you cannot hold your tongue, perhaps I should take it?”
“Go ahead and— ow!”
“I did not give you leave to speak.”
“You asked a question. It would be rude not to — ow!”
“Are you slow, child, or simply ill-mannered?”
“Stubborn,” Katarin muttered.
“How come she didn’t— ow!”
“The Thief of Essences amuses me.”
“Unwrap these vines, I’ll show you amusement,” Brynne growled.
“Will you, now? And how do you intend to do that?”
Jasna counted a third, and then a fourth breath, until the silence broke with a low chuckle from their captor.
“I asked you a question, child.” There was no mirth in the frosty tone. “Look at me.”
The tendrils threaded through her hair slithered, loosening, and Jasna was able to crane her neck. The briefest of glances to her left allowed her to see the others also raising their heads. She returned her focus to the figure before them, and quite simply forgot to take her next breath.
Jasna had seen pretty girls before. Katarin, for instance, and even Brynne, in her oddly boyish way. The baker’s boy at the Threshold marketplace even called her pretty, once, when she asked him why he didn’t ask for the coppers when he slipped an extra sweet-cake in Matron’s afternoon order for loaves.
Aurora, she thought, was pretty, when she bothered to smile. Likewise, her near-sister, Silva. She was very pretty, in a regal sort of way.
None of them, though, had stopped her breath. Her eyes stung, and she wanted to weep, but she couldn’t — that would blur her vision, and she didn’t want to stop staring at the golden-haired woman standing before her.
Her eyes, twin emeralds, even clearer than those of the statues that brought them to this time…
Her skin, smooth, flawless as freshly poured cream…
Before her, Jasna felt small — smaller, even, than among her friends. She’d liked her own hair, well enough, even if it was constantly getting in her eyes, and sure, it was light, with just a hint of copper, but that of the woman — it shone, like it was its own sunbeam.
Jasna swallowed, against a dull ache in her breast. She was…
Jasna swallowed again, and what little air she had left escaped her lips as a sigh.
The woman before her was beautiful.
Jasna sucked in another breath, and her throat burned.
No, not her throat. Her breast. It burned.
It was hot.
She tore her gaze away, dropping her chin.
The dragonstone pendant lay hot against her skin, a glimmer of red-gold light shimmering across one or another of the veins within the stone.
Were her hands not bound, she would have snatched the thing up, yanked it free, tossed it aside. It was distracting her from the woman. The beautiful woman. No, she was more than just beautiful. She was perfect.
Not like her, with her too-long hair. Or like Brynne, with her lopsided smile. Katarin’s nose turned a little too far up, Jasna thought. And Petra! With those crooked teeth… None of them were anywhere near—
The woman was perfect. Unearthly.
She lifted her eyes, again, squinting against the brilliance that shone within the woman’s hair.
For all their shine, the woman’s emerald eyes were hard, flat, like stone. Or a serpent.
Her cheeks, pale and smooth as they were, seemed… hollow.
Wasn’t her nose a little too pointed?
Jasna glanced lower. The woman’s hands were slender, delicate.
Tipped not with nails, but talons.
Her gown, pooled against the ground at her feet, didn’t hang quite right.
Jasna squinted, against the shifting-shimmer of the color-warping aspect of the cloth. One of the ripples had slightly more bulk beneath it.
“What is it you stare at, child?”
Did the woman’s voice linger a bit too long on the sibilants?
“What is it you think you see, my dear?” the woman asked, and smiled a sweet smile, showing teeth.