Mad World

Chapter 16

Days crept past, and nothing happened. I was not allowed to leave the Manor at all, for the sake of my safety, and for once I was content with doing what I was told. I would doze off from lack of sleep, only to be awakened with nightmarish images of everything that has happened to me since I came to this place.

When Alice comes into my room and tells me that tonight is the night of the Choosing Ceremony, I feel a hollow ache in my chest- whether from relief or fear, I am not sure.

"It shouldn't last too terribly long," Alice says in that calm voice of hers as she works the knots out of my hair with a comb. I stare placidly at my reflection, wondering if it will be possible to take the dark shadows out from under my eyes.

I sigh. "So it's like a... ball," I say, trying to keep up with what she has told me so far, the word feels weird coming from my lips, but not as weird as I think it once would have seemed. "We dance and everyone laughs. Then what?"

"Well, then Cassius gets up in front of everyone and announces the winner, who will become his Wife."

I don't even have the courage to nod. My fingers are shaking. Half of me is exultant in the fact that I will not be Chosen. I get to go home! a voice inside of me sings repeatedly.

But another part of me, one that I had buried deep within me, thinks back to the promise Cassius had made me when I first came here, when he told me that I would not win this and he would show me the way back to my home, and my heart sinks. I'm not ready to say goodbye to you, Cas. another voice whispers somewhere from within.

I come back to reality just long enough to see that Alice has stopped fiddling with my hair. She is staring at me through the mirror, an expressionless look on her face. There is emotion in her eyes, though, as she regards me. "You need some time to think," she guesses.

I look at the curls she has created in my hair, not wanting to meet her eyes, and nod.

"Go for a walk through the Manor, then come back."

The Manor is utterly silent as I make my way through the halls. I don't see any signs of Daphne; she's probably getting ready for tonight as well.

I wander through the halls quietly, trying to memorize every detail that I might have missed before: a crack in the plaster of the wall, a rip in the carpet, whether the gilt frames holding paintings of places in Neverland are real or fake gold. Even the smell, like the pages of one of your favorite books that you've read a hundred times over.

I end up in the small pantry, the one with the window that I had escaped from first coming to Neverland. I almost want to laugh at how desperate I was at getting out of this place. Thinking back on it now, I can almost see Cassius in the security room watching the footage of me running to the hills with a small smile on his face. Even then, he knew what to expect of me; he found me quicker than I would have thought anyone would.

"You're not trying to escape again, are you?"

I whirl to see Cassius standing in the doorway, as if the mere thought of him in my mind had conjured him in front of me.

"No," I say, "not this time."

He stands there and regards me, his bright golden eyes taking in every detail. "I'll keep my promise, you know," he says, finally.

I nod. "I never doubted it."

As he steps closer to me I see that there are shadows under his eyes as well. His hair is unkempt, but it suits him. He may be a boy brought up to rule this land, but I've seen him in the forest, in the trees. He isn't tamed. The pantry is so small that I feel as though Cassius is taking up the entire room.

"You're not nervous, are you?" I ask.

He smiles a small smile, but it is real. "Only when I think about it. Are you?"

"Only when I think about it."

He sighs and shakes his head. "I wish things could have been different," he says.

Then, taking my face between his hands, he leans forward and kisses me before I even know what to think.

The kiss only lasts a second, but I feel it everywhere, like taking in air after holding your breath for a long time. He pulls back and I can see in his eyes that he felt it everywhere, too. I know that there is pain in both of our eyes as we stare at the thing we want but cannot have. My fingers itch to pull him close to me and just forget that this might be the last day I will ever see him again.

But we are both stiff and he merely says, "I'll see you tonight," and walks out of the room, leaving me alone.


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