It isn't until three weeks after that first dinner that I try and test the boundaries in order to make my escape.
It's not the most genius of plans, I'll admit, but I figure there's no time like the present. The more I think about it, the more I want to chicken out and cower back in my rose-colored room. I need to get out of this place before I get too comfortable.
After dinner is served, a meal fancier than I would have ever seen myself eating, I ask to be excused. Cassius consents easily enough; he seems to be wrapped up in a conversation with Kayla and her hometown in Ireland. After quickly bidding a curt goodnight to everyone at the table, I try to walk as casually as I can out of the grand dining room. Daphne shoots me a funny look as I pass, leading me to believe that I'm not acting as casual as I think I am. I breathe a sigh of relief as soon as the doors close behind me.
Once in the hallway, I quicken my pace. I hate the dress that Alice has put me in tonight: a short pink frock that has me tugging at the hem every few seconds. She told me it made me look charming when I tried it on and I snorted loudly. My hair is braided and haphazardly pinned on top of my head, though, giving the illusion that it is alive, which I like. I try my best to clear my thoughts and make for the closest thing I've found of an escape in weeks.
I finally gather the courage to yank open the window in the small pantry that I had found a week ago when I hear footsteps coming my way. It is old and hasn't been opened for a long time; the metal hinges give an awful shrieking sound and I decide to squeeze my way through the rest so as not to attract any attention.
I drop gracelessly to the ground and quickly stand, looking around to see if anyone noticed that far-from-sneaky attempt at escape, but I see and hear no one. It seems I am in the clear.
I run across the ground toward the line of trees, in the direction that I've seen many groundskeepers-- even Cassius, once-- head once they are out of the Manor. It seems that this entire place is surrounded by forestry, the only clearing that I know of this Manor, the rest looked like endless rows of trees. I wonder, as soon as I break into the tree line, if I will come across any Lost Boys, and if they will help me get out of here once I do. The sky is beginning to turn a darker shade of gray, though I see hints of pink and yellow, giving me some hope that there may be some semblance of a sun in this world. I don't pause to search for one though, I keep running, hoping to find something helpful by the time the sky gets completely dark.
Once I am far enough in the trees, however, any evidence of a sun completely disappears and I am almost completely immersed in darkness. I try running in a straight line, but realize relatively soon that I am not going in the same direction I was to begin with. When I finally, mercifully, see a clearing, I read headlong toward it.
I break the line of trees only to stumble and gape at the place that I have ended up at. I am now on the face of a cliff, overlooking a valley, and directly before me stands a small, white marble temple standing in the light of the setting sky. Cautiously, I walk toward it, my hand outstretched as though I mean to tell it I mean no harm.
When I reach the magnificent sculpture, I realize that there are engraved carvings running along the sone edge of it: depictions of a boy and a girl. Slowly, I walk around the stone edifice, tracing my fingers along the pictures, letting them tell me their story. From what I can gather, it is a story of a boy and a girl, who ran away together. I pass a picture of them fighting people in large hats with plumed feathers and old fashioned swords. I smile when I see the two dancing around a large fire with feathers in their hair and drums in their hands. How long ago was all of this carved? Why was it built here? Could this be a memorial for the original Peter and his Wife, Wendy?
Finally, I come full circle around the monument--
and stop short with a small scream.
"You know the penalty for running away is death, right?" Cassius asks, inspecting a bit of dirt on his left sleeve. He looks up at me and raises his brows.
I say nothing, only continue to stare at him like an idiot. The sky is definitely starting to turn more charcoal than gray; meaning I should have been back inside long ago, and shouldn't have distracted myself with tourist hotspots of this land.
Cassius tries to look as though he is sincerely breaking news to me. "This is the part where you beg for your life, blondie."
"How did you find me?" is all I can manage.
He smiles that carnivorous smile once more and gestures for me to sit on the bench in the middle of the edifice with him. I only do so to make him more willing to cut my death penalty as a sentence. I leave room in between the two of us, not wanting to get too close, although the stone was cold without warmth from a sun, as well as the air and earth. But not Cassius. He was warm.
We sit in silence for a few moments, him staring out at the forest beyond us, stretching out through the valley below, me staring at him, waiting for him to say or do something. "I really don't want to die," I say, to break the silence, "just so you know."
"I know the way out of here," he says, finally.
I jump at the sentence he says, taken completely by surprise by it. "What do you mean?" I ask, trying not to get my hopes up. Maybe he could just be talking about finding his way back to the Manor, which I sincerely hope he does, since I'm hopelessly lost at the moment.
"The way to the world you came from," he says lightly, "I know how to get there."
My heart picks up a beat, but I try not to give anything away. "Why are you telling me?"
Now he looks at me and smiles. "Let's face it; you and I aren't really on the path of romance, like the others, if you couldn't already tell."
I remain silent, waiting for him to get to the point.
"I know how badly you want to go home," he says, almost distantly. He fixes me with a look, though, and says, immediately after, "Don't run away again."
"But how can I--"
He silences me with a look. "You wont win this contest, blondie. Your heart simply isn't in it. When you fail one of the tests we have to put you all through, which you undoubtedly will fail, you'll be cast out to become one of the Lost Boys for eternity. I'll tell you the way back home once you're cast out."
It seems like a more than good deal to me, though it was such a selfless gesture on his part that I have a hard time believing any of it. "You would do that? Why?"
He stares out ahead of him once more. The stone pillars cast shadows across his face. "Not all of us here are bad, blondie."
"My name is Morgan."
That gets his attention back to me. He smiles, a genuine smile that causes the corners of his eyes to crinkle, which I've decided I like, and would probably want to see again. "Well, I'm Cassius."
"I think we've already established all of this," I venture, not knowing what else to say.
"I think you'll end up liking it here, Morgan," he says, and a thrill goes through me at the sound of my actual name.
"Not as much as I love my family," I say instantly in reply. The words hurt coming from my mouth, but I'm glad I say them. I hug my sides as though that will hold me together and stare ahead into the valley as well. "And if you know the way out, I don't see why you're not trying to get out of this awful place as well."
We lapse into silence as I try to calm myself down.
Once I am sure that my heart beat has slowed and my eyes are dry, I turn and look at Cassius. He is already looking at me, studying me in a way that makes me want to crawl out of my skin and blow away with the next mild breeze, but I am much more confident when I open my mouth this time and speak. "I know this is your home, Cassius, but it isn't mine."
After a short pause, he nods, accepting that fact for the moment. "Whenever you want to come here," he says, "please tell me first. It's really not worth getting killed over."
By my third visit to this place, nothing new has changed within the Manor. There have been no tests, no challenges, no fights. All of the girls keep to themselves, and Cassius spends an allotted amount of time with each of us, doing whatever we wish to do. My wish, of course, has been to visit this clearing beyond the trees, with the temple overlooking the valley.
I sit on the stone bench, my chin resting on my knees, now wearing jeans and a blanket so I don't get as cold as that first night.
Cassius has had little to say to me since that last night we were here, days ago, though he has kept conversation polite and made himself seem interested in what I have to say, but I can tell that my comment on never making this my home has struck a cord within him. I am mildly surprised that he has even allowed me to venture back out here, since I'm pretty sure we can both get in trouble for it. When he sits on the bench next to me I let out a long breath and peek sideways at him.
He is sitting casually, his forearms resting on his knees as he leans forward, his hands clasped loosely together before him. With the darkening sky, he almost looks like a silhouette, though his golden eyes remain just as bright.
"You're not going to leave here," I say, though I meant to phrase it as a question.
He shakes his head, not looking at me. "Where would I even go?" he asks, but before I can reply, he cuts me off, now looking at me. "You speak of a family," he says, "back home, in a different realm, far from this place. I don't have that, Morgan. My family has, is, and always will be, here." His voice sounds confident enough, but there is an undercurrent to it that I just barely pick up.
"I guess I just don't understand," I say. I suddenly can't meet his eyes, though I can feel his stare on me.
He stands and motions for me to follow him to the outer edge of the temple, in between the middle two pillars, overlooking the valley below. "Humor me a moment," is all he says. He is smiling now, casual, carefree, though his eyes tell me they are out to prove a point.
I nod, agreeing for the moment, and look out over where we stand. From this vantage point, I can see the forest below us, stretching out as far as I can see. In the distance, I spot mountains. The beauty of this land is suddenly all too clear to me, bathed in a light I never knew could exist in a land like this before. "It's beautiful," I finally breathe.
Cassius waits for more, but I don't give it. I am staring at the tree line that we came here through now, wondering which part of the forest I was dumped in to begin with, pumped full of drugs. "But?" he pries.
"But sad," I say, considering.
I try to form the right words. "Aren't the most beautifully colored creatures also the most dangerous? I mean, a snake, to some, is beautiful," I start.
"Until it kills you," Cassius says, catching on.
I nod. "I guess no matter how beautiful, would you really pay the price for all of it?" I ask, thinking of the disheveled and starved looking Lost Boys, as well as the girls he has locked away in his home right now who are currently competing for his affection to avoid banishment or even death.
Cassius seems exasperated now, though. "You aren't seeing it right," he says. He wraps an arm around my shoulder and turns me to see everything that he is seeing. "Picture this place without war, without the corruption." His voice is quiet now. "Picture this place as it once was: a place where you ran away to, not from. Picture the real Neverland."
And for a moment, I did. I saw the beauty and the splendor and the appeal of it all. I saw what children in the past dreamed about when they had no place to call their home.
I turned to face him, my heart jolting when I realized I was now in the circle of his arm, an embrace that was a bit more intimate than I was ready for. "Cassius," I say, quietly, calmly, as if talking to a child, "it isn't like that. Not anymore."
"I know," he says, to my surprise. "But I always thought that when I was to become the next Peter, if I picked the perfect Bride..." he trails off, also suddenly aware at the position that we'd gotten ourselves into.
I want to tell him that other Peters before him may have thought the same thing, but Cassius has dropped his arm back to his side, and I think I know him well enough to realize that he is determined, no matter how many times he is told not to be.
He concedes for the moment though, with a sigh. "I'm only telling you this because I know you wont be around much longer. You won't have to worry about all of this in the future." He smiles.
I don't know why, but I cannot think of words.
"We should probably head back," he says after a moment. "Daphne's probably going to start asking questions soon."
"Yes, poor baby," I say, though my heart really isn't into the sarcasm. He pulls away and heads toward the tree line, not waiting for me to catch up, and I don't follow. Instead, I turn and look out over the forest of Neverland once more. The sky has almost completely darkened and I sigh, wishing that Cassius gets the Neverland he deserves.