Through the haze and fear that rips through my body, I realize I have been spit ashore by the unrelenting river that I was thrown into. I cough and gag and scream, all to no avail. There is mud and blood smeared into my eyes and I can hardly breathe. My lungs feel as though they are on fire and I can feel my consciousness fading fast. I continue to scream until I can no longer make a sound.
And then I feel warmth.
There are arms around me, shaking me. "Hey," a voice says in my ear. "Hey, stay with me."
I want to open my mouth and tell the voice to let me go, that I don't want to stay, that I don't want to be here in this place with no sun.
I want the voice to just let me sleep.
But it is persistent.
"C'mon, Blondie. Wake up." The voice says more, but, stubbornly, I don't listen.
"Let me sleep," I manage, though it comes out more slurred than I would have liked.
I hear the voice sigh in what I want to say is relief, but more realistically was annoyance. I am shoved back onto the wet earth, though for the moment I do not care.
"Fine, blondie. Sleep."
And I do.
I come to with no bruises or scars, though I can still taste the silt of the river that I had fallen into in the back of my throat. I sit up, only to realize that I am no longer on the soft dirt of the forest I was in before, but now in an ornate bed; complete with frilly, soft sheets and walls painted a pretty rose color. This was not a bedroom I have been in before.
It is then that I notice a girl standing at the foot of the bed, watching me as I take in my surroundings. I jump as soon as I register her and let out an involuntary noise of surprise, to which she merely gives a small smile in return.
What I immediately notice are the similarities between her and the small girl I had seen in the forest earlier, the one who introduced herself as a Lost Boy. Except this girl standing before me is much more clean, wearing a starch-white tunic; her hair pulled back into a braid behind her. When she notices that I have calmed down, she says, kindly, "Hello."
I say nothing, though I don't think I will be able to anyway. My throat is so constricted my breath comes out in short wheezes. I try to cough but only end up making things worse for myself.
The little girl makes her way to the table beside my bed and picks up a glass filled with water. Handing it to me she says, "My name is Alice. I'm part of the help here at the Manor."
I drain the glass of water, hoping that it takes some of the awful taste from my mouth, and manage, "Morgan."
"Pleasure to meet you," the girl-- Alice-- says, taking the now-empty glass from my shaky hand and setting it back on the table where it came from. "You took a nasty beating in that river. Lucky you were turned up on the shore nearby. Only 3 made it before you."
Lucky. That word rings around my head in such volumes that I'm dizzy for a few seconds, though I think it is mainly due to the lack of food in my system. When the rest of what Alice has said makes it into my thoughts, I sit back on the pillow behind me and consider. "I didn't make it past the gate," I say, finally.
Alice says nothing, simply waits for me to finish my thought process.
"Isn't that, like, against the rules? Didn't they say I had to make it to the actual..." I consider what this place actually is. A house? A palace? A mansion? The Manor is all that I've heard it referenced as. I feel silly even thinking the phrase now.
"You were closer than you think," Alice states, a thoughtful look on her face, "but you are the first exception to that rule that I know about. I haven't heard of anyone being pulled into the Manor without at least reaching the tree line." She grabs my hand and gently leads me from the bed to a vanity mirror lining the opposite wall.
She continues talking and fluffing my hair, now clean, as I sit in a stunned silence. I still cant believe that any of this is happening. I stare down at my fingers; the last time I saw them, they were caked with mud and blood. They are now more clean than I ever remember them being, not even a scratch to show what I'd just been through. Rationally, whatever this place is, wherever it is, I know that it cannot be real.
"We thought you were a Lost Boy when Cassius found you, you were so dirty, but you had the necklace on, you see?" She taps my collar bone, where the silver of my necklace is peeking out of the white nightgown someone has placed me in.
Without waiting for me to speak, she carries on, content with talking with herself for the moment. "Peter wanted to throw you out, have you actually become a Lost Boy, but Cassius argued that it would be no fun with only 3 girls." She speaks lightly, using names that twist and whirl around through my head. "I must say, of all of any of the Peter's legacies, Cassius is the most unique I've seen. To stick up for a total stranger like that? To his father? He is rather rude, mind you, but--"
I shake my head, undoing whatever Alice was in the process of accomplishing with my hair. She furrows her brow and starts over.
"Who's Peter?" I ask. "Cassius?"
"Peter is, of course, Peter Pan's great-grandson, Peter III. He married his Wife, Vivian, and they had a son, Cassius. He's the next in line: Peter IV."
How confusing, I think to myself. They all name themselves Peter. It's King Leo all over again.
As if reading my thoughts, Alice says, "There's power in a name."
My fingers flex uselessly in my lap. How simply I am accepting my fate! I want so badly to run, to find a way out of this place, but deep down I know I will find nothing but death.
"I, for one, am glad Cassius won the argument. You're much more pleasant than the other three. I think you two will get along."
I don't want to get along with him, this boy that has ripped me from my own world and violently thrown me into his. I know that I must at least make an attempt to escape back to my home, that I must not simply accept where I am and what I must do while I am here. I also know that I must earn their trust before I try and leave.
"Alice," I say, testing her name out on my lips.
Her eyes meet mine through the mirror.
"How much more unpleasant are they?"
Dinner that night is a horror all on it's own. The room itself is something that I would have never dreamed of stepping foot in. Straight out of a fairytale, I can only picture Cinderella herself eating here with her very own Prince Charming. For a prison cafeteria, this is a very nice one. The trim of the room is an ornately carved wood, which matches the chairs and the massive dark wooden table that we are sitting at. It is an intricate fresco painted on the ceiling that keeps catching my attention, though. The scene depicts small children flying through the clouds that line the ceiling, smiles splitting all of their young faces. I wonder if any of them were real.
With me at the table are the three girls that I'm to be competing against for the crown. They are sitting quietly, like me, examining each other guardedly. The girl across the table to my left is small, with wild, kinky curls and brown skin and bright eyes that slice into mine when she sees me looking. She smiles, not exactly kindly.
The girl to her left is pretty as well, with long dark hair that flows down her back. She looks utterly bored, almost as if she's accepted the fact that her demise is here, now, soon. She looks at none of the other girls in the room with her, merely studies her empty plate before her; an intricate China piece with pretty patterns drawn across it.
The girl to my left has bright red hair, not quite as curly as the first girl, and a round face. Her eyes are a lovely caramel color and freckles dotted her pale skin. When our eyes meet, she gives me a small, nervous smile.
"Well," the first girl says so suddenly that I jump, "I'm Daphne."
When no one else speaks, she rolls her eyes. "You guys can't even tell me your name?"
But before anyone can utter another word, the large wooden door on the other side of the room is thrown open and in steps a man-- or, more likely, someone on the verge of manhood; he seems around our age, maybe seventeen or eighteen. His walk is filled with all of the confidence of a prince, and the smile he flashes us promises trouble.
He throws himself into a chair at the head of the table on the side that we are all sitting, and I can see Daphne's eyes growing wide with what I can only think to be affection. The other two seem merely nervous, while I, for some reason, can only pay attention to the other girl's reaction to their kidnapper.
He is handsome, I can admit to myself in the safety of my own thoughts. Though he slouches in his chair, I can tell that he is tall and well-built, obviously an athletic boy. His head is full of thick, dark vines of hair that seem more purposefully mussed than accidentally. His skin is the same color of desert sand and his eyes are a bright amber color.
He smiles brightly at us. "Ladies," he says in greeting.
Daphne giggles and her humors her with a sly grin and a wink.
And I cant stop listing off features of him in my head. Thick eyebrows, fine-boned nose, angular jaw, long lashes framing the eyes that now roam over each of us.
"Alright," he says when none of us speak, "let's see if I have this right. Daphne," he says, nodding his head to the girl in question. She nods and leans so far forward in her seat that I'm afraid she might fall for a moment.
"Gabrielle," he says, now giving his attention to the girl with the long dark hair, who makes brief eye contact with him and moves her head in what I think is half a nod.
"And you must be Kayla," he says to the red head, who blushes and nods once.
"You," he said, turning to me, "I don't think we've had the pleasure-- well, with you conscious, anyway." He smiles handsomely.
I know I am blushing, probably as much as Kayla, but what can I possibly say in this situation. Yes, it's me, the one you've taken from her loved ones and dumped here to ogle you. I can tell that my eyes are wide and unblinking, and probably very creepily so, but I can't command myself to play it cool.
His smile fades and now he looks uncomfortable as well. I'm fairly sure that I am staring at him like I would at an insect that crawled onto the table, but I can't seem to stop it. "I suppose I should tell you who I am, of course--" he begins.
"I know," I say, my voice jolting into action that it hasn't been used to, which makes it sharp and shrill. Daphne very pointedly winces at the rough sound, as do I internally.
I clear my throat and try again. "I know who you are, Cassius," I say. I muster up as much confidence as I possibly can in that moment and latch onto it. "I'm Morgan."
His smile returns, slowly. A smile that could boil a frog alive, a smile a lion would give when trying to convince the gazelle that he is okay to come closer. "Well," he says, "you sure clean up nice. you were a muddy mess the last time I saw you."
Daphne giggles once more.
"Thank you," I say, choosing to ignore his comment as well as Daphne's goading, "for saving my life." I am sincere when I say this, and I am positive that it is the last thing I will have to be genuine about in regards to him.
His face doesn't seem to change at all, though I can see something shift; maybe in his eyes. "Don't mention it," he says with a casual shrug, "the more the merrier, right?"
The table lapses into another silence. I fiddle with my hands in my lap, picking at the skin on the sides of my thumbs-- a nervous habit-- and try not to stare at any one of the dinner guests for too long, especially Cassius. It seems that for as handsome as he is, he should have no problem bringing girls into this world more willingly than not. Already I can see that Daphne is acting like she has found the love of her life in the form of a boy who took her from her home and brought her here as a hostage. I wonder if the whole taking-women-against-their-will routine is more of a tradition than a request by the bachelor himself. Maybe he doesn't even want Brides, or a Wife. Maybe he's a monster just like the rest of the people behind this cruel game and I am merely trying to make an excuse for him because he has the face of an angel.
I can tell that he is no angel, though. His smile is one that tells me he doesn't play by the rules very often. It is that sense of rebellion I get from him that makes part of me, even if it is only a small fraction of a part of me, want to get to know him a little more. My stomach churns from hunger and I guide my attention to the flying children on the ceiling once more.
It takes me a few moments to realize that someone is speaking to me.
"What?" I ask, defensive, when I see that all but Gabrielle are openly staring at me, waiting for a response.
"You really shouldn't play so hard to get this quickly," Cassius says in a mock-confidential tone, "wait until we get to know each other a little more first, than we can see if you're worth chasing after."
I cringe, wanting him to know that I am picturing him as an insect that just crawled upon the table, but before I can respond, a boy walks through the door. He is dressed in clothes similar to what Alice was wearing earlier, and seems around the same age as well, though his hair is a darker brown. Maybe I could bring it up to Alice later, if I see her.
"Dinner is served," he says.