Stay True

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Chapter 11

The weeks flashed by, far faster than Clara could have possibly imagined. Soon, she was already having fittings for a traveling habit (why she needed an outfit for traveling, she was not sure; it was one of the many signs of excess in the castle). Though she did have to admit it was quite fetching, with the brown leather corset-style top and the flowing forest green skirt. It had a large, hidden slit up both of the sides, underneath was layered with more of the flowy material, and she could see that the skirts would be wide enough for her to sit on a horse with. Clara became a bit less excited about the prospect of her new outfit when she found out that she would need to wear it for three days without changing or bathing. She had gone longer without bathing, but that was before she had gotten used to castle life. But she bore up relatively well to the "hardship". She actually did not mind the lack of baths so much. Sometimes Eve decided it would be a good idea to use overly fragrant foreign soaps that left Clara smelling like a flower garden for days, even with further baths to scrub the smell off.

Finally, they left. Though the weeks had passed quickly, Clara had been dreading and anticipating the departure in equal measure, and the day seemed to drag on. She wished that she could just instantaneously appear at the Mescian castle, fully primped and prepared, so that she would not have to suffer the lag brought on by travel. Going on long journeys always made Clara anxious, especially this one, for she had never been in a horse-drawn carriage before. She knew what it looked like, of course, and had even persuaded Eve to let her sit in one of the ones kept in the stable, but she could not imagine being in the small area, bumping over the road without the shock absorber of being astride a horse. Clara couldn't possibly imagine that packing up the carriages would be easier than simply jumping aboard a horse, bringing another along laden with supplies, and leaving that way.

James insisted that carriages were far superior to horseback, as did Eve, but Colin confided that being in the same small space with someone for extended periods of time was never very enjoyable, regardless of the company. Clara privately wished that she could at least have him be in her carriage, but he had to stay with the prince. She would be with Eve and Sir Elliot. She needed a knight, not just guards, to protect her. The paths through the woods and the mountain pass they were taking were fringed with bandits. Clara desperately hoped that their little caravan would be safe, and Eve assured her that she was praying to her gods.

They set off at around noon. James wanted to be sure that the knights and guards were suitably prepared. Every few hours on the road, they were allowed a brief rest for the horses before moving forward at a rapid pace.

Clara found she intensely disliked the feeling of riding around in a carriage, as she felt almost as if some great, lumbering beast had swallowed her and she was being forced to ride around in its belly. The only part of the entire journey she enjoyed was getting out of the carriages after the long first day and getting to sleep under the stars, another first for her, excepting the night she was found as "Melanie". She had hardly slept, so she did not count that night. The forest setting helped her feel slightly more at ease, and with all of the forest creatures sending her messages she felt almost as though she was sleeping in her old mud-brick house with the thatched roof, listening to the scratching of the chickens and the snoring of her sisters.

Unfortunately, the night had to end. Clara helped pack up everything carefully, surprising all but Eve and Colin. She chastised herself as she was locked into the carriage once more.

Melanie would not even be caught dead doing something that a servant could do for her. I must remember to be less helpful.

The second day drew on much like the first, and Clara was ever so grateful when it drew to a close. As she settled into her blankets, Eve's comforting warmth only a pace away, Clara just kept thinking, as she had done all day. As she became increasingly uncomfortable in the carriage, she had begun thinking harder and harder to distract herself, retreating into her mind so much that if anyone had attempted to shake her out of it, she had not noticed. Her mind still swirled as she attempted to sleep.

It is not very odd to think to oneself. Is it? I should hope not, I do it often enough... She shook her head. Sometimes she really was strange. But she got her mind back on track soon enough.

Melanie must have been behind some of the things that have been happening to me. Let us say, just for the moment, that she was in fact behind all of them. It would make sense, actually. She had someone working for her, or herself in disguise, come into the castle, it does not really matter how she did it, and slip me something that made my hair grow longer. When she did that, it could have been a cover for another, more dangerous spell, what made me feel so tired all the time and then have that strange dream about Colin.

Clara blushed slightly at this, though nobody could hear what she was thinking. All around her, the breathing had deepened, proving that everyone was asleep or very good at pretending to be.

I did think it was a spell, something that was holding my mind in a brace. Almost like a trap. That is why I was so tired, that is why I felt something snap when I broke myself free. But those spells require something of a close proximity, yes? Perhaps Melanie was simply testing her range, or else trying to see if she could use her mental bond on me as a way to get back into the castle as herself. Surely she was awake by then, it had been months. Colin even showed me how easy it was to get inside someone else's mind. She has dark magic, and she may have twisted it to her own means, and you do not necessarily need consent to be in someone else's head if you are powerful enough.

Clara felt the need to smack something. She knew she had put it all together in her mind once before, and now that she had the solution she felt so stupid.

I bet she even has something planned for me on my journey to her love. Eve did say she loves Prince Killian. She will want to keep me from him at all costs. I wonder what she has planned. It would be so easy to use her same spy that made my hair grow to get the route plans for this trip. She would not even need the spy; the King has been broadcasting the plans for our travels all over the kingdom for ages. She could kill me in any number of ways.

Scared by this thought, her mind stopped whirring. She closed her eyes against the forest and, faster than she could have guessed, fell into a dreamless sleep, necklace unconsciously wound around her fingers.

*****

Clara pressed her cheek to the cool carriage window. The carriage bumped them along, jouncing her bones. Her breath steamed up the expensive, colored glass as her face slid down.

"Oh, you mustn't do that, miss. You'll leave smudges," Eve said reproachfully. At first, Clara was confused. Then she remembered Sir Elliot's and the guards' presence in the carriage with them and played her part. She rolled her eyes as Melanie would, and then turned to press her forehead to the window instead. Clara was feeling quite ill, sicker than usual. It was too stuffy, too warm, too-

THUMP.

Something hit the side of the carriage and Clara jerked back. "What the hell was that?" she burst out, letting a bit of her old farm girl self show. Besides, it did no harm, as Melanie was known for swearing when the occasion presented itself.

The carriage rumbled to a halt and the guards leapt out to investigate the threat. Sir Elliot remained, and he drew his sword and cursed worse than Clara. Despite the situation, she had to repress a giggle, possibly brought on by nerves.

"Bandits," the knight whispered. Eve's eyes grew wide. "They've seen the crest, or the horses." He shook his head. "I told the prince not to go this way, or at least use less decorated carriages if we did go this way..." He swore again.

The carriage stopped. Clara held her breath, discomfort long forgotten.

Something slammed against the side of the carriage, rocking all of them into each other. Clara thought she heard one of the carriage doors open, and Eve screamed, but it was quickly muffled when Clara clapped a hand over her mouth.

A shadow crossed in front of the window, blotting out the sun. Clara had to resist the urge to scream as well. A cold sense of dread settled on her, within her, filling her veins with lead, paralyzing her. Her breathing became labored and noisy. She pressed a hand to her mouth, stifling the beginnings of a desperate, animal sob. Some frantic part of her was analyzing the various escape routes, pieces she could use as a weapon.

Before she had the chance to escape, to put her plans into action, the window shattered inward. This time Eve and Clara both screamed, sounding like small children.

A dark head thrust itself into the cabin. Shaking the rainbow of glass out of its hair, the bandit smiled maliciously, revealing teeth that were as dark and stubby as his beard. Leering at them, ringed by the shattered glass, he spoke.

"Look what we've got ourselves 'ere! A pretty princess and 'er maid." He spat on the floor. "There are no guards lef' to 'elp you now." His reeky breath drifted through the air. Clara barely heard what he said, being so terrified. She snapped back into focus when he jabbed the point of his sword into her shoulder. Pain exploded through her. She gasped and heard his laugh.

Where is Sir Elliot? Clara thought desperately. Her pain was beginning to be replaced by adrenaline, but there was nothing she could do. If she had a sword, maybe she could have fought. But she had nothing but a missing knight. It's not like it's his job to protect me or anything...

Clara felt faint. The edges of her vision were dancing with black dots, swarming in closer to the center. She saw a shadow dart past, behind the bandit's head. She tried to keep her eyes open, head lolling woozily. The bandit fell away from the window. Eve's little yelp told Clara that he was dead.

Sir Elliot appeared and rushed them out, stumbling over the stinking corpse. The knight had snuck out of the carriage at the first bump that sent the carriage rocking, then snuck around and killed the terrorizing bandit.

The sounds of battle raged around them. So all the guards are not dead... Clara thought. But many of the voices she heard were voices in agony. Soon, Sir Elliot would be the only one left, fighting a hopeless battle. He pushed Clara into someone's arms. They helped her onto a horse. She heard Sir Elliot shouting, "She needs to reach the castle safely! Take her and go! Go!"

Clara blinked herself awake, if only for a moment, to grab the reins that were pressed into her palm.

She closed her eyes and hung on tight as they rode away from the chaos.

On their way to their second stop, Clara was too weary to cry. She slept on the horse, her shoulder quietly throbbing. By the third stop, Clara had hardened her resolve. She would get to her destination safely, despite those bandits.

Clara did not think about Colin that whole time. Naturally, it would have been Colin she was put with for safety, if James was fighting. He was the only other person capable of protecting her, as Eve would have been overlooked. She was too worried about her own problems. But when he stopped them in a clearing for the night, Clara saw his face and realized that all he had thought about during their riding was her.

She felt guilty, but not for long. The list of tasks ahead of her successfully took her mind away. Clara rubbed down, fed, and watered the horses, then took inventory of what they had managed to bring with them from the run-in with the bandits. Colin had evidently already had a satchel with him packed for such a contingency, and they had much of the necessary supplies for a night and a day riding to Mescia. Colin gathered wood and started a fire, then went out and hunted for a little while to make us a stew.

After they had eaten, they made little beds for themselves consisting of the saddlebags as pillows and various other things (such as horse blankets) as blankets and a mattress. Colin took first watch, but Clara could not sleep. After a little while of staring into the woods after every sound, he leaned over her to check on her. Seemingly satisfied, he said to himself, "Oh, Clara. What am I going to do with you?" He leaned over, hesitant, and lightly kissed her on the cheek before standing up and gathering more firewood. As soon as Clara knew he was gone, she opened her eyes and gently touched her cheek where he had kissed it. It tingled. She smiled to herself and finally was able to get some rest.

*****

Clara bolted upright, screaming. She quickly quieted because she did not want to wake Colin. They had decided a little while ago that since they thought the clearing was safe, they should both get some sleep. Clara started sobbing uncontrollably, and lay back down. What an awful dream...

She did not get back to sleep, but partway through the night she could not take it anymore. Clara hugged her knees to her chest and rocked back and forth, saying, "It's not real. It was only a dream. It's not real..."

Colin woke up and said, "What wasn't real?"

Clara turned to face him. She had not wanted him to hear her. "Nothing. I'm fine."

He looked concerned. "You're clearly not."

It was his pity that sent the tears running down her face again. "Yes, I am. Our main priority is getting over the mountains. We can't afford any delays," Clara choked out. Then she rolled back over, her back facing him. She heard him sigh, then roll over too.

She sat up as soon as the tears stopped. "Hey..." She started slowly, "Look, I'm sorry. All you ever do is be nice to me, and I always just shoot you down. It is not nice, and I should stop," Clara said to Colin's back.

He remained facing away from her, and she could hardly make out his murmur. "So you've got something right."

"I am so sorry! I cannot say anything else to make it better! I'm just so sorry!" And Clara broke down crying yet again.

She heard him sit up, since she could not see past the waterfall of tears. "Hey, hey, it's okay, I'm not a bit mad, honestly!" Colin said, putting his arms around Clara. She went boneless, soaking the edge of his shirt with her tears. She felt terrible. How did it go from her apologizing to him comforting her? This was all wrong!

Clara sat up slowly, wiping the remnants of tears from her face and taking some slow, shuddery breaths. Colin left his hand resting on her shoulder, but did not say anything, not wanting to set her off again.

"Sorry," Clara finally said. "That was..."

"Yeah," Colin said, punctuating her statement.

She sniffed. "Yeah."

"So..." Colin began cautiously, "Do you want to talk about what you dreamt? I have found it helpful to tell someone about nightmares. It makes them seem less real."

Clara sniffled loudly. "Sure...but I don't think you'll like it much."

"I'm all ears," Colin said, a small smile appearing on his face.

Clara took a deep breath. "Okay," she said, and then she began.

A shadowy battlefield, full of corpses. Young and old, men and women. She can see no survivors. Suddenly she feels a tap on her shoulder. An older man with stringy white hair, a beard down to the middle of his chest, and an eye patch stumbles up to her. She notices he is missing an arm and part of his left leg. He has blood smeared across his face and chest, where she assumes are more wounds. Pointing with his one good hand, he rasps, "This...is all his doing. His fault!" With that, he falls to the ground, dead, hand crooked into a white claw. She looks to where the man showed her. She sees that there is a hill, and as she gets closer, she can see that the hill is made of a red, bloody rock she does not recognize. Crowning the hill, a bloody sword in his hand, is...

Tears started trickling down Clara's face once more, but soon stopped. She appeared to have cried herself out. Colin had leaned in, entranced by her recount of the awful dream. "Yes?" he inquired eagerly. "Who was on the hill? Who was the killer?"

Clara slumped against his shoulder, worried about how he might react. "You," she mumbled.

He set her upright and looked at her. "I was the killer?"

Clara nodded. "That was why I was so upset."

Colin leaned back on his hands, deep in thought. After a few moments, he said, "You know I would never, ever in a million years do that, right?"

Clara leaned back on her hands as well. Both of their faces were uplifted towards the stars. "Yeah. I was just scared because...sometimes the things I dream come to pass."

She moved slightly closer to him, then, after hesitating a bit, leaned her head on his shoulder again, watching the fire.

"Colin..."she began, hesitating again. " I wanted to thank you."

Colin almost sat up straight in surprise, but thought better of it. He did not want to tip her over. "Why?" he asked suspiciously. Yes, he had helped her a lot, but was it really necessary for thanks? He did all those things because he wanted to, because he cared for her.

She sighed. "All you ever are is nice and funny and wanting the best for me," she said. "And," she added right when Colin was about to respond, "I really like that about you."

He opened his mouth, and then shut it again. What had gotten into her? First, she was sad, then angry, and now so sentimental! Colin doubted that he would ever fully understand women.

She sat up, and then shifted so that she was sitting on her knees. "Actually, I wanted to thank you better," she said. Poor Colin was getting more confused by the second. What did she mean?

Clara's heart was pounding uncontrollably, and she hoped Colin could not hear it. He started speaking again. "Clara, what do you mean?" He sounded puzzled, but at least he did not sound hurt.

She smiled. It did not occur to her until later that she was being very mysterious, but she was not thinking straight. "I want to say thank you...better than just with words," Clara said.

"But I still don't-" he started to say.

Clara leaned forwards and stopped his words with a kiss.

It was a risk, and she knew that, but it made her so happy to see him so happy that she knew...she was in love.

When they finally broke apart, they grinned at each other before recapturing each other's lips in a sweet, chaste kiss goodnight. Clara fell asleep in Colin's arms.

*****

The next morning, Clara kept stealing awkward glances at Colin. She was wondering how he felt about last night. She had woken early, waking him with her while it was still dark, and they had talked until dawn, at which point they mounted their horses and continued towards the mountains. Clara felt like Colin was watching her too, but she did not say anything.

As they rode, they could not really talk much. They were pushing their horses as fast as they could go, which was a rolling canter, and the noises of the underbrush were loud enough that Clara couldn't even hear herself think, let alone speak.

After an hour or so, when the horses dropped their speed to a trot, Clara had to talk. She had to keep reminding herself, It is still Colin. He is still your friend. He just knows how you feel for him now. "So..." Clara began.

"I was thinking about how lovely the trees are this time of year," Colin said suddenly. Clara looked around. The trees were very pretty. She had been so wrapped up in her head that she had not noticed the scenery of the forest. Just then, Clara heard a wail. It was so piercing, so heartbreaking, that she pulled her horse to a stop and listened.

There! It came again, and Clara was able to pinpoint its location. It was nearby. She looked at Colin. He was used to her occasionally erratic behaviors, and he saw something in her expression that made him nod and say, "Go ahead. I'm right behind you."

Clara gave him an intensely grateful smile. What did she do to deserve someone like him in her life?

Clara urged her horse on towards the source of the noise. They found it a minute or so later. It was a wolf pup, pitifully mewling. As Clara dismounted to figure out why, she saw that one of its legs was caught in some sort of snare. He was just a baby, separated from his mother and littermates. Clara carefully undid the snare and lifted him up, broadcasting messages of calm and wellbeing to the poor thing. Colin just watched her cradle the injured wolf to her chest and examine his hurt foot. There were deep cuts where the snare had cut into into him. He had clearly been lying there for at least two days.

"Is there anything you can do to heal him?" Clara asked. Colin nodded and wrapped his hand around the little wolf's paw.

"Eleahruht," Colin murmured. Clara felt the paw heat up, and when Colin removed his hands there was no trace of blood or mangled flesh. She looked up at Colin, so grateful, and he wrapped an arm around her. Clara felt so safe, even if it was only for a moment.

"We need to help him. Keep him with us for a little while. Maybe not all the way to Mescia, but at least a day," Clara said as assertively as she could. Colin just nodded again and helped her mount her horse.

The two of them made their way back to the path. "He needs a name," Clara announced.

"Yes, he does. We can't just call him 'Wolf' all the time," Colin said. Clara did not have anything particular in mind, so she was glad when, after a few minutes of thought, Colin recommended the name Shawn. Clara asked the wolf how he felt about that.

Is that a good name? Shawn?

Yes. I do not fully understand this 'name' concept, but I would like it if you called me Shawn. It seems to please you, and you saved me. I will always stay with you.

The baby expressed such a deep understanding of things, a different perspective of everything. Clara decided, right there, that he would be staying with them, sneaking along in the bushes if he had to. She looked to Colin. "He likes his name. But he said something like he wants to stay with me. Can he?" Clara sounded like a child begging for a new toy, but she wanted Shawn with her. Colin agreed, and they rode on.

Shawn crept along in the bushes so nobody would see him and chase him away (he was a wolf, after all, and all of the kingdoms prized their chickens), and when Clara and Colin arrived at the huge, golden gates leading to the capital of Mescia, Shawn bid them farewell. But not forever. He promised Clara that he would always be nearby in the bushes, and she in turn promised that they would find a way to sneak him inside so that he could stay with Clara in her chambers.

When Clara and Colin reached the front steps of the opulent palace, made of tan stone with a golden roof, Colin took both the horses and made to lead them away. "Don't go!" Clara whispered, grabbing his hand.

He squeezed it briefly before saying simply, "It would be better for you to go in alone. They will already disapprove of your appearance, and it would only make things worse if you walked in with a servant." When Clara gave him a despairing look and refused to release his hand, he extricated himself carefully and said, "I approve of your appearance, of course, I always do." She grinned. "But you need to greet them alone. Perhaps Eve and James have made it ahead of us."

That simple suggestion brought hope to Clara's eyes, and with hardly another look at her tattered, dusty, scratched self she bounded up the steps and Colin shook his head and led the horses away.

Colin had no mishaps with the stables, though he did receive several strange glances at his worn attire. Clara, on the other hand, was running into a lot more trouble with the royal side of things.

"Who let this thing in?" Queen Katherine sniffed. Clara looked down at her boots and attempted to subtly clean them off on each other and her skirt until the queen cleared her throat and she looked back up shyly.

"Your Highness, I am Lady Melanie. I believe you were expecting me?" Clara said, going for forgiveness from the queen but also giving off a bit of snark. When Queen Katherine seemed taken aback, Clara felt she had done her job well.

That is, until the queen called out, "Guards!" in a commanding tone. They latched onto Clara's arms with great force, causing her to writhe in an attempt to free herself.

"I really am Melanie! Do you see the patch on my belt? Bandits waylaid us on our way to your lovely home! Perhaps Prince James arrived before me? We were traveling together, you know!" Clara began throwing random bits of information at the monarch and her guards, who, now that Clara got a very good look at them, were wearing ridiculous looking uniforms with gold mirrors sewn on the front and tall helmets that looked rather like upside-down buckets.

As Clara continued to struggle, King Kenneth and his son Prince Killian walked in. Killian saw her and immediately rushed to her side, waving the guards off and enfolding her in a hug she only weakly returned. After touching her, Killian seemed to realize just how filthy she was, and he let go and wiped his hands on his pants surreptitiously.

King Kenneth had gone to the throne adjacent to his wife's and sat down, taking her hand and placating her as best he could. "Killian, lead our guest to her chambers from the last visit," the King said, adding a genuine smile that warmed Clara towards the Mescians in general. Killian bowed gallantly over Clara's hand and took it gingerly, dropping it as soon as they were out of sight of the King and Queen. Clara certainly did not mind. She smiled at the prince in a way that should have looked nice, but he scowled in response.

"Where is James? I was looking forward to dueling him. I wonder if he has improved since the last time you visited. It has only been a year or so," Killian said. Once he started talking, it seemed as though he would never stop.

Clara felt her fake smile dropping off her face, and she made no attempt to reattach it. She knew she would have to break into his speech that he was nicely settling into now, and the next time he took a breath she jumped in with, "I was rather hoping you knew where he was," very coolly.

Prince Killian seemed stunned. Good, thought Clara. "He has yet to arrive. Perhaps his lack of swordplay skills was to be his undoing," the prince sneered. He dropped even lower in Clara's estimation of him, though she could see why Melanie might love a man with so much scathing commentary.

She made it to her rooms without insulting him any more times, and she fell onto the bed with a great sigh. It appeared that Eve had not arrived yet either, and Clara prepared herself for dinner and bed for the first time in months.

She began to think, perhaps a bit too much, about how much time she had been Melanie, including how much time it had taken her to prepare. She was taken around the end of the eleventh month, the middle of spring. She stayed inside the castle for the remainder of spring, through the end of the year, and then was "found" at the beginning of the fourth month, Colin's birthday and the first month of autumn. She had stayed there, at the castle, for the rest of autumn and the first two months of winter, the seventh and eighth months. The first ball in Mescia would mark the turning of the seasons, the last month of winter and then one each over the three months of spring. One of the celebrations would take place on Clara's birthday, which she did not know yet. And then the wedding would be at the beginning of summer and the new year, the wheel of seasons turning once more as it always did.

The morning after she arrived, Clara awoke feeling very stiff and sore. Not surprising for sleeping on the ground for a few days and then going back to a real bed, albeit an over-decorated one. Everything in the Mescian castle was overwrought, from the elaborate candelabras dripping onto the floor everywhere Clara looked or the four-poster bed with the three layers of hangings and five different blankets of various thickness. All the decorations were various shades of gold and tan, which were the kingdom's colors. All the kingdoms prized gold, and most included it in their flags, but the Mescians were very fortunate to have a great deposit of it on their land, not to mention their excellent trading relations with the South, who also had plentiful gold supplies.

As Clara put on a borrowed beige dress with golden embroidery, lace, and little cutesy bows, she wondered what had happened to her brother and her best friend. She hoped they were all right and that many others had survived as well. But deep in the pit of her stomach, she felt that the two people she prized most were likely the only survivors, and even more likely dead.

During a listless and boring luncheon with the returned Mescian ambassadors and the royal family, a page came bursting into the room, his hat falling as he jerked to a stop.

"Carriage by the front steps," he panted. "They seem to be looking for her." He pointed a finger at Clara. She stepped out of her bench quickly, and, hoisting her skirts up in a very unladylike fashion, fairly sprinted to the front door.

There they were. James and Eve, looking very bedraggled and very put out, alone. Clara let out a little squeal and hurried down the steps to hug both of them heartily.

"Oof," James said. "Glad to see you made it here in one piece."

Clara stepped back from them. "Is anyone else..." She trailed off as Eve shook her head sadly. Tears threatened to spill over, and Clara enveloped her friend in her arms once more.

Long after Clara, King Kenneth and Prince Killian finally reached Eve and James and immediately engaged the latter in a flurry of slapping on the back and crowing (Killian) and how it was positively wonderful that they were still alive (the King). Eve was left to lead the horses with the carriage still attached to the stables. Curious about the stables herself, Clara followed. She had had enough of Killian for a while, as he had begun shadowing her every move seemingly with the childish intent of driving her completely mad by the time they married.

Once Eve and James were settled, the sun had begun to set. A cool wind danced through the grounds, and Clara decided to go exploring. She found herself in a field and turned her face to the wind. Her hair whipped back around her shoulders and she laughed aloud. She felt so free, unfettered by responsibility, and utterly independent. Clara almost thought she could just fly away.

Then she began to think of what was chaining her down. Clara turned so that her hair was swirling in front of her face. She closed her eyes. How could she choose between Colin and Killian? She did not love Killian. Melanie did. And how could Clara spread her wings now, when she had everyone thoroughly convinced she was Melanie, and she could begin repairing the damage Melanie had wrought?

Clara twisted slowly, and half of her hair blew back, the other half continued to claw at her eyes and sting her face. Perfect balance. She could do both. Clara could never wed Colin anyway-a princess and a servant, as if! But she could marry Killian; despite the pain it would cause her, for the better of the kingdom and the people.

Clara fell onto her back in the grass and watched the trees sway in their mystical dance of nature. Her eyes unfocused, and the green of the trees melted into the blue of the sky. She lay and contemplated the issue.

Then Clara sat upright and laughed at herself. How could she be worried about such mundane things? Even if it was all that her life had become, why shouldn't she be pondering bigger ideals like what it means to be completely torn, and find the beauty and order within the chaos that was quickly becoming the only theme she could see?

*****

Once Clara was back inside the castle, she dropped onto one of the strange wooden benches that were scattered throughout the Mescian castle. The memory of the wind buzzed on her skin. She wished to sit and enjoy the sensation, but she had not been seated for five minutes before she saw Killian headed down the hallway. Clara jumped up and ducked into a nearby room. Fortunately, it was empty. It appeared to be a classroom of some sort, with rows of seats, but all of them were facing a large mirror rather than a teacher. Clara dismissed it as another strange Mescian custom and pressed her ear against the door so she could hear when Killian had passed.

She waited for what felt like an excruciatingly long time. Her whole body felt full of heat, throbbing and pulsing with fever, except instead of sapping her strength it lent her life. She felt invigorated, ready for anything. She nearly burst through the door, expecting to face the world and feeling prepared to do so, when she heard the whistling and remembered just who was out there. She shrank back into herself, curling into a ball and resting her head on the smoothness of the door.

She could not go on like this forever, as she kept being reminded by Eve, but she could try. Clara knew that avoiding Killian would break his heart slowly and more surely than if she had just told him she had no feelings for him. But she could not pretend to be ill again, for Melanie was not a sickly person, and at that moment, Clara could not come up with any other ideas. So, she waited for the whistling to recede down the hall and snuck out of the strange room with the mirror to the safety of her chambers, where she was to begin readying herself for the feast.

*****

One of them, the one with the scar, had begun reporting to her. He said that the one with the scrubby beard, their former leader, had been killed, but Scar Face had managed to pull something off the corpse. The woman receiving the report shuddered delicately. These people were dirty, disgusting brutes. She was almost glad when they had found her in her makeshift home, although their smell nearly overpowered their usefulness. She had only required a piece of the girl. The correct girl. Not the maid, lovely person that she was, but Clara. The peasant who was taking Melanie's rightful place on the throne, taking her prince, and ruining her life in all sorts of other nameless ways.

Melanie scowled at nothing with such ferocity that the scarred bandit backed off, but not before reverently placing a single hair at her feet. She plucked it up, ready to be disappointed, but she wasn't. Coiled in her palm was a single dark brown hair.

She bared her teeth. At last, she could begin to prepare for the biggest spell of her life. And at last, she could exact her revenge on the people that had stolen her life.


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