She stepped out of the bath, wrapped herself in a towel, and went to the pitcher for a drink of water. She took a sip, then a huge gulp, freezing cold water trickling down her chin and onto her chest. She laughed and wiped it away.
"Oh, I do believe that was the best water I have ever had the pleasure to drink!" she said.
Eve looked at her strangely. Something seemed off about the way she was talking, and she decided to put Clara to the test. Eve could not be too careful.
"You like that better than cranberries?" Eve asked suspiciously.
Clara nodded vehemently. "Oh yes! Far better than the delicious tang of cranberries."
Eve started to raise one eyebrow, but thought better of it. If her suspicions were correct...
She had one more question. "Better than the scent of lilacs?" Eve knew lilacs made Clara cough, so if it were truly Clara then she would say something along the lines of "of course".
Clara paused in thought for a moment, then said, "Who can truly compare a scent and a taste? But yes, this water is even better than the lovely scent of lilacs." She paused, suddenly suspicious. "Why so many questions, Eve? You're never usually so...curious." With that, she dismissed the thought and started towards the wardrobe.
Eve took a step away from her. "You're not Clara."
"Aren't I?" she questioned.
Eve shook her head and moved back a few more steps. "No. Clara hates cranberries, but who loves them? Melanie. Lilacs make Clara cough. But who likes a pot of them in her room? Melanie. Welcome home," Eve sneered. "I thought you would have done more thorough research."
"Very astute!" Melanie said. "You always were a smart little maid."
Eve narrowed her eyes at Melanie. "How dare you! I thought maybe Clara was feeling odd, or had consumed a potion she should not have. Mark my words," she continued. "No matter what it is you've done with her, I'll find her. I will find her, and you will pay if you have hurt my friend!"
"Hm," Melanie said. "I was hoping it wouldn't come to this, but – elewcá!" she screamed.
Eve moved out of the way, and just in time, too, because a giant fireball flew past her and left a starburst of soot on the stone wall. She jumped and checked her skirts for any sign of flame.
It was highly disconcerting to see the face of a friend become this nightmare. Eve managed to dodge all the fireballs Melanie threw her way, and eventually she gave up on trying to char her to bits.
Melanie tried a different tactic. "Gnuteas!" she cried.
Eve backed up until she hit something hard. She looked to her left to see if she could escape that way, when she realized she had not hit a wall. Eve was frozen in midair. That was Melanie's plan. Get Eve so that she could not move and then kill her.
If Eve had not met Clara, she probably would have fainted dead away (pardon the pun) and not even noticed when Melanie set her on fire, or asphyxiated her, or did something else equally horrific.
As it was, however, she had met Clara, and as a result, Eve had become stronger and more confident of herself. She began struggling, but that soon proved to be futile. She was definitely stuck.
Eve tried taunting Melanie. Since she was looking for something to wear (do not think to ever fully understand Melanie's motives) she did not look up.
"Why did you freeze me?" Eve shouted. "Were you just too cowardly to face me without it? Are you really that scared of me, Melanie?"
Once Melanie was dressed, she began to respond. "I'm not afraid." She started strongly, but that was what betrayed her. The way Melanie operated was that she would try to manipulate someone in order to get what she wanted. If she was afraid of something, she would attempt to claim the opposite of that so that the people would doubt themselves, as she did with Eve. If she were not afraid, she would pretend to be because the other person in this situation would doubt her and she would gain the upper hand.
Eve used this knowledge to her advantage. "You can't fool me, Melanie! I have been your loyal maid for a very long time! I know you too well," Eve said. She was rather proud of her retort, especially because she was released from the trap. But before Eve could call any knights, guards, anyone who could help, Melanie spoke two words. "Nappeicsà utoemeg."
She pointed at the door with her finger. Eve noticed that there was a glowing line on the ground just in front of the door.
Melanie dropped her hand back down to her side, and a stone wall sprung up right where she had put the line.
Melanie lifted her hands above her head and intoned, "Eardroews!"
Two glittering swords materialized over her head. One dropped into her hand. Melanie pointed it at Eve, and the other sword started hurtling towards her.
Eve ducked, sure that her end had come. Then I heard Melanie chuckle. It soon turned into a full-bodied laugh. She was laughing at Eve. But why?
Eve removed her hands from their protective position on her head and looked up. The sword had come to a stop directly in front of her.
Eve gingerly stretched the few inches it took to grab the sword, and hesitated, fingers touching the hilt. It would be so easy to just wrap her hand around the hilt and pull it towards her...but could she? Would it do something to her if she does? Would it do something to her if she doesn't?
"Oh, my dear little maid," Melanie sang, her voice drifting up and down the scale. "You said I was scared! Didn't you want a fair fight? There is no backing out now. I've enchanted this room so that the winner of this...duel...can only leave once their opponent is dead." She patted the wall. In truth, she was afraid herself. But Eve had betrayed her. Eve had to die. It was her own fault, really.
Melanie was completely bluffing. All her spell had done was erect a barrier that meant they could not leave, but if someone cut it down then they could easily just run.
Melanie was quite good at lying. In fact, that was how she always won whatever game she and James played together. He would get very upset, but that is how she learned to keep a straight face, even in the direst of situations. And he said that playing cards would never come in handy...
Eve reached and snatched the sword out of the air. It was perfectly weighted to her hand. In fact, it was the best-balanced sword she had used.
Eve swung it in a large arc and spread her feet into a defensive stance. Melanie advanced, swinging her sword lazily.
"You mentioned that you have been my maid for quite some time," she said, bemused. Eve did not lower her sword or relax her stance. "Well," Melanie added. "I've been training to kill a lot longer."
The last words came out as a feral snarl and she charged at Eve.
The fight was impossible to remember. For several, endless moments it was just one frenzied sword strike after another. One of the few things to be remembered is that Eve never wavered from defense. She never attacked Melanie.
Finally, however, someone gained the upper hand. And you will never guess who it was.
After a few moments of clashing swords and some very fancy footwork on Eve's part (she may have been a servant, but she was a fantastic swordswoman) Melanie managed to get the tip of her sword under the hilt of her opponent's. One simple flip of her wrist, and the sword was gone.
Eve stumbled back. Her hair had started falling down from the intricate braids she had imprisoned it with. There were sweaty tendrils hanging down over her face.
"Forgot about that move, didn't you?" Melanie smirked, enjoying victory.
She did not notice Eve start to creep around to her sword until she had it again and stood with it pointed at Melanie's throat.
"So that's how you want to play..." Melanie growled. "So be it." She spun her sword into her ready position. Eve noticed nothing but the position of Melanie's body, analyzing how she was going to strike next. Eve made sure Melanie could not disarm her so easily again.
The door to Melanie's room burst open...outwards. Melanie did not flinch, so Eve did not even blink.
The sound Eve did notice was when someone started pounding on the wall that kept them fighting. A sharp smack, followed by another. Someone was breaking down the wall to get us!
Eve would have helped them, but just then Melanie charged at her and Eve had to defend herself.
Eve saw something in Melanie's eyes change as they were trying to kill each other. When she heard the intruders, Eve saw true fear. Melanie was not afraid that Eve would kill her. They both knew that Eve would never do that. Eve could never do that. When the unknown people came, all she thought about was how they might punish her for her crimes. She was, quite simply, terrified.
Eve used Melanie's distraction to flip Melanie's sword into her own free hand. Eve swung them both and pointed them at Melanie. Her eyes widened.
"Stop! Please. Do not hurt me. I did not mean anything...please...I thought you were my friend," she pleaded.
Eve's position wavered ever so slightly. Suddenly she did not see the girl who was hated for her evil. Eve saw her former best friend. She saw the girl Melanie was before she turned.
"Melanie..." Eve's voice broke. She started to set the swords down. "I-"
The wall blew apart, spraying the whole room with chunks of stone. Eve covered her head. "Melanie?"
Eve searched for her and found her quickly. She was lying on the floor, a large cut on her forehead. "Oh, no," Eve murmured. "Melanie." Eve shook her arm. "Melanie!"
Melanie's eyelids fluttered, and she came back to consciousness. "Oh..." she murmured. She put her hand to her forehead. When she saw her own blood, she looked shocked. "What happened to me?"
Eve glanced at the door and saw a dark shadow. "You have to get out of here," Eve whispered. "I'm sorry I didn't help you before, but at the time I didn't agree with you. Now, I am telling you to get out, as quickly as you can. Please, Melanie. Trust me."
Melanie looked at her, her eyes wide and scared, before something hardened and she looked away. "Eleahruht," she mumbled, trying to conceal it from Eve. She heard Melanie's slight gasp as her wound closed. She wiped the remaining traces of blood on her skirts before standing. Her eyes were no longer scared. Eve saw a deep resolve, a need to survive, a fire burning within her. "Thank you, Genevieve. Goodbye."
With that, Melanie turned away and raised her arms high above her head. She began an extremely complex spell, the words of which Eve could not make out. Of course, their visitor chose that moment to step in and throw a dagger at Melanie while her back was turned. It found its mark.
Melanie shrieked. She somehow managed to finish her spell, despite the pain. She disappeared in a puff of smoke, the echoes of her cry still ringing in the ears of anyone close enough to hear.
Eve turned away from where Melanie had been and faced the wide-eyed face of Prince Killian. "Prince-what are you doing here?"
He spared her a glance and went back to staring out the window. It was widely known that he was in love with Melanie. "That was Melanie?"
Eve took a step closer to him. "Yes..."
He tore his eyes away from the window and faced Eve. "Where is she? What have you done with her?" he shouted at her.
"Whoa, wait a minute!" Eve held up her hands and backed up. "I haven't done anything. You knifed her in the back. She probably left to go heal!"
"But she has magic. She never told me," he murmured, half to himself. Eve half-smiled back awkwardly.
"Well, I'll help you get back to your room. You probably-"
"Not my room."
Eve looked at him from under her hair. A deep sense of respect had been instilled in her from years of servitude. And despite her friendships, she still found royalty rather intimidating. "Then where, my lord?"
Killian seemed to be deciding something very difficult. "To the stables. I must get a horse and ride after her!"
He began to stride out of the room. Eve tried to catch his arm, but he just shook her off. "My lord!" she gasped. "I'm not sure that's the best..." She quailed under the intense glare he gave her.
"I love her." And that was that. The prince stormed out and left Eve in the wreckage of her friend's room.
Clara was still screaming when she crashed on her bed. A fine mixture of dust and grit settled in her hair and her open mouth. She heaved herself up and spat, trying to get the powder off her tongue, before she even realized that she was not dead. She felt her arms, her legs, and her face to ensure that she was not just dreaming or hallucinating as she bled out on the forest floor.
She did not notice Eve until she shrieked when Clara made to get up. "Stay, you demon!" Eve made the warding gesture against her chest.
"Eve! It is I, truly! It's Clara!" Clara stood and went to her friend, but Eve backed away.
"How do I know that you're not Melanie, back again for more revenge?" Eve had wound her arms around herself, gripping so tightly Clara was afraid she would simply rip her dress off.
"Melanie did not succeed, Eve. I am back now. It is truly Clara." Clara had to make her friend believe her. Eve, at last, realized the truth and collapsed into Clara's arms, sobbing.
"Shhh, it's okay, it's okay." Clara rubbed her friend's back soothingly. Eventually Eve's sobbing was reduced to hiccups, and they sat on the dusty bed together. Eve told Clara the entire story of what had happened between her and Melanie. Clara told what had happened to her too, leaving out the part where Clara had magic. Clara hated lying to her friend, and feeling like she could not trust her with something this big, but she had to be careful. Too many people knew already.
"Now Melanie's back out there somewhere," Eve concluded. "There is nothing we can do but wait. We cannot try to find her, for she is intent upon wreaking vengeance on us all. I believe her plan was simply to replace you, have you eaten by the dragon-"
"And then assume my position as her to continue on her way to the throne. She probably wished to do away with James somehow, leaving the line to the throne open, then threaten the King with her secret, probably breaking him so badly that he will either commit suicide or become so mentally unstable that he won't mind her killing him. Then she will simply oust the secret to the kingdom, assuming what she believes to be her rightful place on the throne," Clara finished. Eve was looking at her with a very strange expression that was a mix of concern, unhappiness and the barest tinge of fear. "What?" Clara asked, pretending to be oblivious.
"You are sure that you aren't still Melanie? Did you maybe hit your head during your fall from the dragon's lair?" Eve said lightly, only half joking.
Clara let out an unexpected laugh, only startling Eve further but making herself feel quite a bit better. When questioned what the reason for that was, she simply responded with, "Because it feels like maybe now we can get some peace. Maybe not, but perhaps we will be able to construct a better kingdom, one without Melanie in it. Say, now that the prince has gone after Melanie, I don't have to marry him, do I?" Clara let out a small whoop.
"Only if his parents don't give any reason for his disappearance. Eventually everyone will find out that you are not exactly who you say you are," said Eve, always the voice of reason.
Clara gulped. "Right."
Then she cleared her throat. "Well, we have got a lot of work to do." Eve nodded in grave agreement.
Clara did eventually find Colin. He was mortified to find that the person he had taken back from their little excursion was not in fact Clara but Melanie, and when Clara asked him what her surprise would have been he said, "It was a view of most of both kingdoms. You could see the curvature of the world from that high up. But it was certainly not worth dying for!"
The next few days were the hardest. Clara had to pretend that everything was fine, nothing had happened, and that changing rooms was simply because the other one was not satisfactory (though she gave everyone who asked a different reason why). The King and Queen were worried about their son's sudden disappearance, but Clara did not exactly give them a specific reason he was gone. She mentioned that perhaps he had gone on a hunting trip of some sort, as he did seem the type who enjoyed hunting. They accepted that explanation reluctantly, and declared that despite their son's disappearance, they would still throw Clara her birthday ball, though it would no longer have the attachment of a pre-wedding theme. "We wouldn't want to let you down," King Kenneth told Clara. "The invitations went out months ago, we can't cancel it now," the Queen sniffed.
Clara was worried about the ball. She was hoping that Melanie would not show up and wreak havoc, and she was also rather hoping that it would still be fun. She surprised herself by actually wanting the prince to come back, because that would mean that Melanie was done for and he had found her dead.
It was now only a week out from the ball, but the prince had not returned. The King and Queen (well, mostly the Queen) were increasing the pressure on Clara to tell them exactly why their son was missing. Clara had asked Eve what to do, but Eve had responded in typical fashion. "You will have to check with someone higher up the chain of command. And if they do not know, I am sure everything will work itself out." Eve would have given Clara several other logical solutions, but those were just to keep her busy. Clara wanted a real answer.
Clara had groaned at Eve's response, but went to James anyway. "James?" He was seated at the desk in his room, scribbling something on a long roll of parchment. Clara knew she should not have interrupted, but whatever it was could wait for a moment. "It has to do with the kingdom," Clara added to her greeting, feeling rather silly.
It worked. James slammed down his quill, splattering ink over the desk and hopefully not his precious parchment...whatever it was. "Why didn't you say so?" There he was, with his way of always making you feel like you have done something wrong. "Come in, sit down. What's going on?"
Clara wanted to shout that the kingdom in general should not be more important than her personal problems that also concerned the kingdom and that if James wasn't blind he would see what the matter was. Then Clara decided to take the high road and attempt to repair their distant, vague relationship by not saying all of that, but rather saying, "I'm very worried."
"Is it about your ball? Or your wedding? Go and talk to Eve or Colin, they enjoy those things far more than I do. I do not like the ceremonies much. I mostly go for the dancing, and of course, the drinks," James said. He had started grinning to himself, and Clara felt that if she lost him to reminiscing now she would never get his attention back.
"James!" Clara snapped. He shook himself slightly and came back to the present. Before he could start, Clara rushed in with, "I'm worried because Killian is missing and the royal parents want to know why but I can't tell them because he went after Melanie and I'm supposed to be her and he threw a knife at her because she was doing magic and if he comes back and sees me when he's been looking for Melanie who he knows full well magically disappeared into thin air then there's an imposter at the castle and that's me," Clara finally broke off, panting.
This successfully stunned James into silence and he sat there for a moment, blinking at her. "Ah," he finally responded. Clara wanted to shake him. Here she was, worried out of her mind for a multitude of reasons, and all he would say was "Ah"? She fumed at him wordlessly until he deigned to respond properly. "Clara...you are correct. We knew that you would have to reveal yourself eventually. Melanie's sudden reappearance was...an unfortunate oversight." Clara had to ball her hands into fists very tightly so as not to leap over the desk and strangle her brother. An unfortunate oversight indeed. Everyone I cared about could have died! Clara thought. But James was still talking, so she listened. "Clara, I would rather you not have to reveal yourself here, but it would seem that there is no other choice. We must explain why the only heir to the throne of Mescia is missing and why you are not only not more concerned, but also why you have chosen to stay here when you could be searching for your true love." James paused, almost like he was still processing Clara's rant. "You are not an imposter here, anyway. You are meant to be here." Before Clara could possibly feel better and consider not attacking James, he added, "By blood, I mean. You have royal blood, so you are okay. Not everyone knows about that, though...this will be interesting to explain."
"Not really," Clara said, finally finding a pause long enough in which to speak. "Can't I just say that I'm Melanie's nice twin sister, that you brought me here because she is evil for using magic, and then prove it by showing them that my eyes are brown and not green like hers?"
James blinked some more. "Oh. Yes, I suppose that would work." He almost mentioned that he had never noticed the eye color difference, but since he would have to back her up to the royalty, he decided it would be better if she were not unhappy with him. "I will stand behind you and offer my side of the story as well, of course," James said.
"Really?" Clara asked. "I should hope so. It was your idea."
"Well, it was Colin's. I just approved it. He said he found you in some record in the library that nobody looks at." After a moment of thought, James added, "But I will have to say it was my idea. No self-respecting prince takes orders and ideas from a servant."
"Now you're catching on!" Clara said. Despite the reassurances, she felt nervous. How much of the story was she supposed to tell? Should she tell everyone about her magic as well, but downplay it so that it seemed extremely harmless? They were less stringent with their magic laws in Mescia. Though it was still frowned upon, they had had to deal with the mass immigration of Druids and other magical people when Theorden outlawed magic on penalty of death. In Mescia, due to their current alliance with Theorden, magic-users were simply sent away into the forest to find others like them or possibly get eaten by a beast. People were rarely heard from after that punishment, so nobody quite knew what happened to them in there. Clara was not particularly wanting to spend the rest of her life a Druid, though with Colin's interest in them she may have been able to convince him to join her. She decided that she would tell the story as if she had no magic, but be careful not to say those words exactly so that if it came out later that she did, in fact, have magic, then she would be able to say that she had never actually lied.
The next day, Clara dressed in the plainest thing she could find (which was a sort of yellowy gold with ruffles down the front and trailing lace cuffs) to seem truthful and pious. James was not attired similarly, but that hardly mattered. It was Clara who had to tell the story.
When they entered the throne room, James gave a perfunctory little bow, while Clara stepped in front of him and curtsied as deeply as she was capable of. One of her ankles cracked, and she winced. Not the best first impression, but it would have to do. They already knew her anyway...or at least they thought they did. She swallowed hard and began her tale.
"King Kenneth and Queen Katherine. I am afraid that I have not told you the entire truth about your son's disappearance. Before you get angry with me," Clara said quickly, for Queen Katherine had stood up with a murderous gleam in her eyes, "It was not exactly my decision to keep this information from you. I do not know where Prince Killian is, but I do know why he left." Clara paused, and the Queen sat down. The royal parents were both looking at her still, eager and confused in equal measure. Clara took a deep breath. "Your son left in search of Lady Melanie."
The response was not quite the spectacle Clara had imagined. The Queen did not leap up and screech for the guards, and the King's kind expression did not turn to one of discovering betrayal. They both looked quite confused, and the King spoke first. "My dear, I am not sure I understand your meaning. Are you not Lady Melanie?"
Clara opened her mouth to speak again, but James stepped in front of her and said, "This is Lady Clara. She was raised in an outlying village of Theorden, and as you can see, is Lady Melanie's twin sister." Clara was annoyed at first, because it felt like the one interesting thing that had happened in her life was finally not meant to be a secret anymore and she wasn't even the one who got to reveal it, but then she realized that James stepping forward lent an air of authority to the story that her confession wouldn't have.
Sure enough, the royal parents took James at his word and calmed down slightly. They looked at the two of them, the Queen slowly starting to anger, the King restraining her and simply wanting to know how all this happened. "Clara, then. What happened? How did this happen? I don't understand in the slightest, and I would like to."
"Then we will decide when to kill- ahem, kick you out," the Queen hissed. Clara took a step back. The King whispered something in her ear, and she softened, even nodding at Clara solicitously to continue.
She was surprised by the sudden change it attitude, but she was not going to let it go to waste. Clara began talking very quickly, explaining everything she could and glossing over what she could not. Every so often, James would jump in with his side, truly helping her case and adding credibility, and by the end Clara thought that James had really made her case believable, which was good since it was the truth.
By the end of the story, the King and Queen were both listening, open-mouthed. They had some questions, naturally (But...how did you manage to keep this from everyone? What happened to the real Melanie?) but James and Clara fended those off mostly by admitting that they didn't actually know. After a brief discussion that Clara could not hear and James did not even attempt to listen to, the King and Queen stood and the King announced, "Though it saddens us greatly to do so..." King Kenneth paused, and his wife jumped in. "We are charging our son with treason and disowning him. If he ever comes back through those doors, he will be a pauper. No son of ours deals with evil." Queen Katherine stopped, breathing heavily. Her fury was cold as ice. Clara reminded herself again to never get on her bad side.
The King sat down heavily. "You are dismissed," the Queen said imperiously. Then she sat, presumably to help her husband, though Clara had never seen her actively help someone before other than herself. Clara and James hurriedly made their bows and left.
"This is quite a serious allegation," James said as soon as they were out of earshot of the guards.
Clara nodded, and then cocked her head in confusion. "Why?"
"If they have disowned Killian, then not only can he never return but if he does they must pretend he is not who he says. They will say that they do not have a son. This would be a black mark on them, disowning their son, and I fear that instead they will have a private funeral and announce to the world that he is dead," James responded.
"Oh," Clara said. "That seems a bit...extreme, though, doesn't it?"
James shook his head. "It's like playing a game of chess, but immense and with real people. Sometimes you need to sacrifice a rook or a knight to win the game...but they aren't killing him, they're just pretending he's dead."
Clara raised an eyebrow at him and stared for a few moments. After they uncomfortable and prolonged silence, she said, "I didn't know you knew how to play chess." Then she simply left.
The prince was in fact announced dead later that day. Clara had to have her beautiful red dress fitted again, but sure enough, when she did the math we discovered that the ball was within the thirty day mourning period for one who had passed away, and everyone would be wearing black (with altogether too much gold trimmings and trappings, naturally) to the ball. Colin assured her that the ball would still be fun, but Clara had her doubts.
She had been spending more time with Colin, as much as she could spare beyond the condolences of everyone she passed who did not yet know the truth. Surely by then the news of her true identity had reached the King in Theorden, but she did not receive a summons from him, so she decided to wait it out.
The letter from King Woden arrived the day of the ball. Clara had gotten a new dress to wear, black, off-the-shoulder, and not too gaudy with the decorations that were somehow the style, and the wonderful red one had been put away for another time. The wedding, of course, was off, but Clara had been hoping that the details of Prince Killian's "untimely demise" would not reach the King until her return. In his letter, which Clara opened and then held at arm's length for fear it would start screaming at her, he demanded that she return and explain what was going on. He was also furious with James for not coming to him sooner and putting the entire kingdom in jeopardy on the hunch that Clara would be different than Melanie. Clara laughed when she got to that part. The King and his son were not so different after all; only focusing on the kingdom and unable to discern the difference between good and bad when they looked the same on the outside.
Despite the fact that the King had gone down severely in Clara's standing, the letter put her, James, Colin, and Eve in a dark mood, and they were unable to enjoy the festivities despite making a fine show that they were so as not to disappoint their hosts. At one point early on, James pulled Clara away from the crowd, both of their fake smiles falling away in the other's company. "I have requisitioned a carriage to leave with us at first light tomorrow. We will not make a big deal out of our departure, but we will be taking along more guards this time and will take a less bandit-infested route," he said.
Clara swallowed. She had nearly been enjoying herself up until that point. She had been doing her best to forget about Sir Elliot as well. "Yes, that would be good. Sir Elliot's loss is still a terrible burden upon us all," she replied.
James frowned. "Sir Elliot? I thought he got away with you..."
Clara shook her head, her brow furrowing. "No...He passed me to Colin, then stayed back with you and Eve...I thought he died when you arrived without him!"
Blinking in an effort to remember, James responded, "He disappeared soon before the bandits did. Once you were gone, they beat a hasty retreat, and Eve and I spent the rest of the days moving slowly in the carriage so as not to attract more of them...I cannot believe we did not talk about this sooner! What could have happened to Sir Elliot?"
Clara opened her mouth to answer, but a high-pitched voice called out, "Oh Jamesie! Come back!"
Clara snickered. "I believe Lady Anastasia would like you by her side. We can discuss this tomorrow on the way back to the castle." James nodded, grimacing, and went to Lady Anastasia, who proceeded to drape herself over him in her tight and revealing dress. Usually James quite enjoyed that sort of treatment, but that night he couldn't enjoy anything. He had far too much on his mind.
Clara sorely missed the atmosphere that the festivities usually brought, but all bad memories of the night fled the next morning, when Colin woke her and told her that they were leaving. When Clara asked where Eve was, Colin merely responded mysteriously with, "I saw her leaving the ball in quite a state. It would seem she disapproves of the Lady Anastasia's intentions." Then he swept out dramatically. Clara rolled her eyes. He clearly picked up the art of theatrics from James.
The sunrise was beautiful, but the party leaving the castle was in no mood to enjoy it. Clara scowled out the window, her early-morning burst of energy long faded away. James was staring at a spot over her right shoulder, lost in thought. Colin thought the sky looked like a garish sort of pastry and longingly thought of a real breakfast, not just the light traveller's fare that was his fate for the next few days. Eve was silently bemoaning the fact that they had all been crammed into one unmarked carriage and that Clara wouldn't stop jouncing her leg to a tune only she could hear.
At midday, everyone gratefully piled out of the carriage and spread out. Colin devoured his lunch quickly and then paced, talking to Clara all the while as she rested her head against the cool bark of a tree and murmured vague answers to what he was saying. She was exhausted from the ride, staying in such a cramped space. She was also hoping to sit next to Colin for the next leg of the journey. Eve's constant tension had kept Clara from napping leaning on her as opposed to the unfortunately hard carriage window.
"...it is so obvious now, I wish they'd just admit it-" Colin was saying.
"Hmm," Clara mumbled. "Wait," she said, sitting up straight. "You're talking about Eve and James?"
Colin rolled his eyes and flopped onto the grass next to Clara. "Of course! Haven't you seen the two of them? I know you didn't hear a word I said." Clara blushed, guilty. "James is always staring at her, and, well, Eve hasn't been herself lately. Oh, but you did not see her leave the ball. She was in a state, yes, quite a state." Colin's voice had gone up in pitch and almost taken on a singsong quality.
Clara smacked his shoulder, sending him rolling away comically. He had so much pent-up energy! "Quit teasing me with what you know! You like to gossip more than an old washerwoman, you know that?"
Colin crawled back over to her, putting his face on his hands in the cutest, most gossipy way he could. "Yes I do!" he squeaked in an imitation of a young girl. "And you should hear about the time Eve-"
"I don't want to hear anything about Eve she wouldn't tell me herself, it's not right. Anyway..." Clara leaned forward until she propped her face up on her hands too, her face a few inches from Colin's. "Tell me what happened!" she whispered.
"Nothing really. Eve saw how Lady Anastasia was behaving, and couldn't take it anymore so she left." Colin popped back up and started prancing in circles around Clara and her tree. She rolled onto her back and stared at the sky, feeling somewhat left out. When Colin reached her again, she grabbed his foot. "Please just sit with me," she said. At that, he sat down straight away and almost relaxed.
When the time came to get back into the carriage, Clara announced that she wanted to sit next to Colin. Nobody argued, but Eve did turn a deep red, causing Clara to nudge her and wink suggestively, only making Eve turn that much redder.
Clara fell asleep on Colin's shoulder as she had been hoping to, and that night, as they prepared for bed, she sought out James. "I just realized that Colin and I never told you about being...well...together. It is okay with you, though? It would be really weird if you didn't like it. I mean, I-"
James cut her off. "I've always known he rather fancied you. I think it's about time."
Clara's eyes widened, but she did not want to jinx James's goodwill, so she went back to her sleeping roll near Eve. Just as her maid was drifting off, Clara nudged her.
"Clara, what do you want? We have to be up early tomorrow," Eve mumbled.
"I just wanted you to know that I think you and James would be really cute together and it's totally okay by me, in case you were worried about offending me or something," Clara whispered conspiratorially.
Eve sat straight up, but Clara had already flopped down on her side, facing away from Eve. "Why, you...oh!" Eve huffed and lay back down when Clara ignored her. Clara grinned to herself. It would seem that Colin was correct about Eve and James.
The day they arrived at the castle was grim and grey, matching everyone's mood of apprehension. Clara kept worrying everyone by pulling at her dress and voicing her concerns aloud. Colin and Eve tried to soothe her as best they could, while James stared out the window, ashen-faced. It would appear that even the wrath of Queen Katherine didn't scare him as much as the wrath of his own father, who he looked up to and tried to emulate as much as possible. James's tortured expression was enough for Clara to stop her fretting and start reassuring James.
The carriage stopped in front of the castle. "James, come on. We need to get out," Clara said, tugging on his arm. Almost in a trance, James stood and drifted out of the carriage doors and up the steps to the castle. When he reached the immense front doors, he stopped and leaned his head on them.
Clara glanced from James to Colin, and then back to James. Seeing him behave this way was concerning. "Colin, why don't you come with us..." Clara suggested. Should James fall over or need help walking or something, she wanted Colin to be there not only to help James but also to help herself. "Eve..." Clara looked at the maid, standing by the carriage and looking forlorn. "Why don't you come with us too? We could use the extra moral support, and as soon as we're done we can go unpack."
Eve broke into a wide grin at the thought of unpacking. She really liked to organize things. And she probably also wanted to help James, seeing as the two of them were newly enamored...or whatever was going on with them.
Clara's mind had settled into a sort of sleepy, travel-worn haze. So she wound up at the doors to the throne room, poised to knock, with no recollection of how she had gotten there. She blinked and shook her head. She had to be able to focus for what was ahead.
As she walked in with James trailing behind, Clara realized how sick of it all she was. She was tired of having to pretend to be someone else, and she was already tired of the confusion people had with the whole switch. She was ready for it all to be over, and begin a new life that was essentially the same as the one she had been living for the past year. She could even visit her old family. She still missed them, but less than she had. A lot can change in a year.
Clara stumbled slightly, but righted herself quickly. She was unsure of the exact dates, but she was pretty sure that today was the very same day she had been brought to the castle. She had been Melanie, missing and present, for exactly one year. This also meant that they had successfully pulled off a very big deception and kept the heart of the kingdom relatively safe. For an entire year.
Clara felt a new wave of strength. What is one day more of troubles when you've spent a year paranoid and scared? What is revealing your true self at last, when it's all you've wanted to do for the past year? At last, Clara could be free to be herself. She had tried so hard to stay true to who she was and feared that by pretending to be Melanie she would become like her. But now it was over.
"Your Majesty," Clara said, and curtseyed deeply. She waited for James to bow, and then said, "My name is Clara. Delighted to make your acquaintance."
The King stood, red-faced and seething. "You have infiltrated my kingdom. You have one minute to tell me why I shouldn't have you killed, here and now."
Clara nodded. "James thought of it. He said that Melanie had been making trouble and should be removed, for the good of the kingdom," Clara said, trying to gauge the King's reaction. He did sit down at the mention of the kingdom, and perhaps began paying slightly more attention, but it could have been that he just wanted to sit down, or perhaps he was genuinely curious but also very angry. Clara told herself she had to stop thinking like that and just tell the truth, and soldiered on. "He found out that I existed, that Melanie was not an only child. I had believed until then that I was a simple peasant, the daughter of a farmer and a midwife. After being brought here, and told my true lineage, I felt that this is where I belonged. Not standing in as Melanie, but as myself. I have been pretending to be her for a full year now, and I apologize for deceiving you. But something had to be done about her. I am that solution." Clara swallowed. This was a far more condensed version of the tale she had told the Mescian royalty, and she had hoped to resolve everything else out through questions rather than just telling and including unnecessary details that the King wouldn't like and that could get her killed.
James was still silent, swaying where he stood like a tree. Clara was unhappy that she hadn't received much support from him this time, though he had helped her considerably the other time they had been through this. Though she was also worried that he hadn't actually breathed since they were out by the front doors.
Clara watched as the King chewed over the story. Then suddenly, most of the color drained from his face. Clara was concerned. What could he have thought of that could make him react like that?
"You said your true lineage," he whispered harshly. "What do you know?"
"Well..." She paused, unsure of how much to say. "I know that my mother was the late Lady Aldis, and I-"
"She knows that you are her father," James said, speaking at last. Color flooded his cheeks, like he was embarrassed to have told his father that he knew.
The King went pale. He might have guessed that they knew. After a few moments of silence, the King said weakly, "Now prove to me that you aren't Melanie, and that this isn't some clever trick of hers."
Clara nodded and bounded up to the throne, startling the King. He jerked backwards into the back of the throne, and Clara said, "It's okay. I am not going to do anything. Just look." She opened her eyes wide.
"Brown," the King breathed.
"Exactly. Brown, not green. And there isn't any magic out there that can change the windows to the soul," Clara said. She noticed that the King had the same green eyes as Melanie, the same green eyes that Clara did not have, and she had to repress a shudder as she stepped away. "Do you believe me now?"
Still shaken by the extent of Clara's knowledge, not to mention the fact that he had just discovered he had another daughter, the King took a moment to reply. "How do you know so much about magic?" he rasped.
Clara did her best to refrain from rolling her eyes. "I read," she said simply. "Will that be all?"
The King closed his eyes and slumped, as though he was carrying something that was only now too heavy for him. "There is no way to be sure that you don't have dark magic like Melanie."
Clara's heart stuttered and sped up as her stomach dropped. The confidence she had gained when she walked in drained out of her. She tried to retain some semblance of calm on the outside, but it was worse than she had feared. The King was suspicious. And he would never let that go.
"I don't trust you, Clara. But if you can prove to me that you do belong here..." King Woden let out a sigh. "You can stay. I was never one to turn away my own blood." Then his tone grew dangerous. "But this is your only chance. If I have reason to believe you are not what you say, that you are betraying us..." He fixed Clara with a glare until she dropped her head. "You will be killed. And I will see to it myself."
Clara closed her eyes and took a deep breath. It felt almost like she was being executed right there, head bowed and taking her final breath. Her eyes flew open, unable to contain the idea any longer. "Yes, Your Majesty. Thank you for your mercy and your hospitality."
"You are both dismissed," the King said coolly. It would seem that threatening Clara had enabled him to recover from the shock she had brought.
Clara snagged James's arm on the way out, as it appeared he no longer knew how to move. As soon as they got out of there, the doors slamming loudly behind them, Clara collapsed against the wall, taking comfort from the solid stones digging into her back and their coolness seeping in through her dress. She sat there and just breathed deeply. She could not believe how everything had gone.
When she was chilled back to her senses, Clara stood again, flexing her stiff fingers. James was staring straight ahead, propped up by the base of a statue. "James, come on. Let's go." She took ahold of his arm and tried to pull him up, but she was not strong enough to get him upright and he was not budging. "James, come on! Do you want someone to find us lurking here and go through all of that again?"
James popped up, mumbling something incoherent that was probably along the lines of "no", but almost immediately started to sink back down again. "Oh, no you don't," Clara said. She pulled one if his arms around her shoulders and dragged him away.
By the time they reached the staircase leading to his rooms, Clara was tiring fast and unsure how she was going to get James up all of them. Fortunately, he pushed her away at that point and said, "I can go on by myself, thanks." Clara turned away, rubbing her shoulder, but he stopped her for a moment to say, "That was really brave, what you did back there. It takes a lot to stand up to him and tell the truth."
Clara turned back to James, but he had already started up the stairs. She smiled faintly. Some things would never change, but perhaps their relationship could improve.
Clara began making her way back to her room, but Colin found her as she was contemplating the high, spiraling staircase to her chambers. "You know, that's an awfully long way up. Maybe I could just sleep here from now on," Clara said, sitting on the bottom step.
"Come with me. There's something I want to show you." Colin pulled her up from where she had just sat down.
Clara frowned and said, "Will there be a lot of stairs?"
Colin laughed. "Not too many. And trust me, it's worth it."
Clara sighed only half-jokingly. "Fine, fine. Where are we off to?"
Grinning widely, Colin said, "Follow me, milady."
That got Clara smiling like a fool. She really liked it when he called her "milady". It just sounded really cute coming from him.
He tugged her down the hall, turning the corner abruptly and causing them both to laugh and stumble into a run. They sprinted down the corridors, still laughing and smiling, feet pattering together. They reached a short staircase, and Clara hesitated at first, but at Colin's beckoning hand she jumped up the stairs two at a time. A few more corridors and one more set of stairs and they skidded to a halt in front of a short, dark door with an angled top set into the wall.
Out of breath, Colin asked, "Are you ready?"
Clara panted back, "We've only gone halfway across the castle. It's not like I'm tired or anything." Then she smiled. "But I'm very excited, and yes, I'm ready."
Colin gave her an adorable half-smile and pushed open the door dramatically. Clara stooped over to enter, and then was able to straighten up but had to squint her eyes at the unexpected brightness. She was expecting something dank, dark, and a bit uncomfortable that would have made for a fine little adventure, but what she found instead was a cozy little room bathed in sunlight. The far wall was simply a window, and that was the source of all the light. The window faced the distant mountains and the rolling hills, and it was a picturesque view. There were two overstuffed and faded chairs seated facing the window. Behind the chairs, there was a small bookshelf full of fairy tales and children's books, and scattered on the floor there were several homemade-looking dolls. There were also paintings hanging on the walls, but they were faded beyond recognition, reduced to pale, faint colors and fraying canvases. Clara turned to Colin, practically glowing. "What is this place?" she asked in a hushed tone.
"It used to be a playroom, I believe. From a very long time ago. Nobody even remembers that it is here. But what you see isn't everything about this place," Colin replied. Then he ran his fingers over the walls, concentrating on something. Clara looked on, confused and fascinated. When he encountered whatever it was he was looking for, his eyes opened and he murmured, "Nòdàfo."
The wall melted away, leaving a dark and empty hole behind. But it did not lead out to the moat. "This one leads straight to the main passageway, but there is a left fork off of it, and that leads to the kitchens," Colin said proudly.
Clara walked over to the tunnel, mouth agape. She put her hand out, into the hole, and looked back to Colin. She had several questions, but the first that emerged was, "Why isn't there any dust?"
Colin laughed. "I found this place ages ago, and back then I cleaned it up and cast a spell so it wouldn't get too dusty again. But there was nobody to share it with, so I haven't been back here in a while."
This made Clara smile sadly, then hug Colin very suddenly. "Thank you for sharing this with me," she mumbled into his shoulder.
He hugged her back and laughed. "I thought you would like it." Then Colin pulled back and kissed her forehead. "Now, what do you say? Exploring or reading?"
Clara took his hand. "Exploring," she said. She stretched up on her toes and kissed him quickly before starting off down the tunnel. Colin followed behind, smiling broadly.
Now that she was there and the weight of her false identity had been lifted from her shoulders, Clara felt herself truly settling in at the castle for the first time. She had a wonderful person she loved who loved her too, she no longer had to pretend to be in love with someone who she really could not stand, and best of all, her secrets were safe.
It was the best sort of ending to the deception she could have hoped for. Because it was not really an end to anything but that. Actually, it hardly resembled an end at all. There was so much still to be done. It was the dawning of a new time, a time when eventually she could right Melanie's many wrongs.
Clara even dared hope that she could one day bring about magical freedom.