Stay True

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Chapter 6

How...why...what is happening?!? Clara could not think. She could not breathe. Time stretched and then snapped. She fell hard, but she could breathe again. She reveled in the feeling before opening her eyes. She saw Mouse on the floor beside her, Colin sitting up and staring at her, and Marcus...was breathing? How? He died...

Colin stood up so quickly it made Clara feel dizzy to watch. Her head spun and she closed her eyes and put a hand to her head. She felt Colin's hand on her arm, urging her up. Clara stood as best she could, but a fierce headache had taken up residence behind her eyes, and she kept one hand pressed to her forehead as the other helped her steady herself.

Now that Clara was upright, her head pulsed and throbbed. She swayed for a moment as she took in the scene. Mouse was still lying on the ground, unconscious. Marcus was still breathing, and his breathing had steadied enough that it seemed as though he was asleep.

"Colin?" Clara rasped. The hand that was holding her head dropped to her throat. She coughed, wiped her mouth. Her hand came away red with blood. "Oh...oh!" Clara fell to the ground again. Colin frantically tried to help her, but there was nothing to be done. Clara pushed him away as she coughed again. Soon the floor was spattered with blood.

Eventually, she felt ready to talk again. Colin's murmured words of encouragement that Clara suspected were spells helped her regain her speech and fill the void that it felt her mind had become. Her voice was still rough and scratched, but she did her best to convey her thoughts. "Colin...what happened?"

He shook his head. "I'm not sure. With all of your coughing and such, I was unable to examine Marcus or Mouse, although I have my suspicions..."

Talking became too much of an effort. Resting her bloodied hands on her knees, Clara questioned Colin with her mind, which had returned with surprising strength.

Are they both alive? Clara asked. When Colin started to give her an answer, Clara shook her head quickly, sending another wave of dizziness through her. No, I know, I know. You have no idea. I meant for you to check.

"Oh," Colin said. He went over to Mouse first and checked for a pulse. After a few seconds of feeling around Mouse's wrist, Colin said, "He's alive. Just barely, but he's alive."

Clara sighed with relief. Unfortunately, her sigh sent her lungs into frenzy again, and she had another coughing fit. She waved off Colin's attempts to help her and instructed him mentally to check on Marcus.

Colin was a lot quicker with Marcus. "His heart is strong," Colin said, disbelieving. Colin double-checked that Marcus had a pulse not only in his neck but also in his wrist. "He's definitely alive." Colin's voice was full of wonder and he started murmuring to himself. "How is that even possible...he was most certainly dead...and now Clara's like this...and Mouse is alive too...but how? Even if he was a...he should have died...a life for a life..."

Clara could make neither head nor tails of this, so she decided to focus on not being that "life for a life" and continue breathing. But soon enough, she decided she had to know.

Colin? It was still too much effort to talk.

"Yes, Clara, what is it? Can you speak?" Colin asked, his voice full of concern. Clara glared at him. He knew her well enough that he should have know that if she had been able to speak, she most definitely would have spoken. Colin's interest was quelled.

What is wrong with them? And what were you talking about? I could not make it out.

Colin had to try to remember to answer aloud. It was almost like having someone whisper something in your ear and expect you to answer completely out loud, to the whole world, and even though no one was listening Colin did not want to be heard.

"I think...that Mouse here may have been a necromancer." Anticipating the obvious query that was coming, Colin continued. "A necromancer is someone who can summon the dead, usually only for a short while if they are drawing on their own life source. You know, you cannot actually kill yourself with magic. Your body will end the spell if you are not powerful enough. If the necromancer is drawing from another's life, though, then they could completely bring back the dead." Colin shuddered. Nasty business, necromancy.

After a short pause, Clara said, "And how do you know so much about this?" Her voice was barely more than a whisper, but Colin was glad to see it working again. A positively horrible thought occurred to him then, but dared not voice it. If he was right...

Colin chose to answer Clara's question rather than give any more thought to the idea spreading its poisonous roots in his head. "I know all this because, like you, I took a liking to a word I found when I was searching for a spell. I became fascinated by the concept of bringing back the dead. You know, I had a brother," Colin changed the subject abruptly.

Clara was startled, but she could see the direction the conversation was headed. Trying to stop it would be like jumping in front of a horse and carriage, she decided, so instead she just said, "He died in the war, I presume," rather resignedly, as this seemed to be the most obvious cause of death, and the most probable. Colin nodded, unsurprised by her assumption. Clara tried to not to sigh and make the pain in her chest any worse.

Colin did not elaborate his tale, and Clara was glad for that. Colin did not feel like sharing the details; besides, Clara had figured it out. He was contemplating the possibility, at least, that he could see his brother again. Who wouldn't want to be able to speak with their loved ones one last time?

Clara desperately tried to steer the conversation away from the dark turn it had taken. She coughed, bringing Colin back to the present. He had to tell her. It would not be fair to just let her...die...without knowing.

"Clara, I am so sorry. I am so, so sorry," Colin said. He almost began crying. He had not meant to say that, but it had slipped out. She would die, and Colin would be alone again. Pushing thoughts like that away in the hopes of salvation, Colin soldiered on. "You are dying. Mouse is drawing from your life's power, from your light. You shouldn't be getting stronger now, but you are magical." Colin wanted to scream, to rip his hair out. This was so difficult, to tell Clara that she was dying. And on top of that, there were unseen complications, like her resilience and magical capabilities. He satisfied himself by gritting his teeth. Clara just stared up at him with her perfect, beautiful eyes, their deep and yet somehow luminous color like a forest, full of browns and greens, shadows and light.

Colin tore his gaze away from hers. She meant so much to him...he got up, startling her, and said simply, "Don't worry. I will save you." He placed a hand over her eyes, sliding them shut. She resisted at first, but the spell he spoke put an end to that. "Naipàls," he whispered. Clara's whole body went limp. Colin caught her and laid her out carefully on the floor next to Mouse. It was strange, being the only one awake in the room full of bodies. Live bodies, but still.

He roused Mouse, carefully. Colin entertained a brief hope that waking Mouse would break the spell on Clara, but he had no such luck. Mouse's eyes fluttered open. As Mouse looked into Colin's scared and determined face, tears streamed down Mouse's. "Marcus...I can't live without him. He's all I have left..."

Colin sighed. "I know, Mouse. But I do not want you to die too. Do you even realize what you have done?"

"I haven't done anything. I just cannot let him die! I need him!" Mouse grabbed Colin's hand. "I need him."

"Clara cannot die. If you kill her then I will kill you," Colin said, his voice soft but deadly serious. "You truly don't understand, do you? You are sapping Clara's life in exchange for Marcus's! I will not let you kill her. She has her whole life ahead of her. The whole kingdom is depending on her. And you have a magical life ahead of you too!" Mouse had started looking around frantically, searching for another solution. "You are strong. You can have a wonderful life once magic is free. And magic will be free," Colin said. Mouse shook his head. He was still crying.

Colin stole a glance at Clara. She was growing paler by the minute. She would die soon. "Mouse!" Colin grabbed his shoulders, holding him down. "You can say goodbye." Colin's voice broke. "I can't let you kill her."

Mouse's tears slowed. He pushed Colin away and sat up. Something had changed within him, and when they stood, Mouse seemed to be a little taller.

"My name is Mason," he said. Then he walked over to Marcus and whispered something in his ear. The old man seemed to smile a bit before he went limp again. Mason stayed by his grandfather for a moment. He wiped his face and turned back to Colin.

Clara woke and blinked a few times. "Ooh...my throat." She ran her hand through her hair to clear her mind and winced as she encountered a tender spot. "And my head."

"Your girlfriend is safe." Clara glanced at Colin sharply, but he avoided her gaze quite intentionally and neither one of them disputed the point. Mason was still speaking. "Just...see that magic is freed. I would hate to think..." For a moment, Mason was just a scared boy again. Then he straightened up and looked the powerful sorcerer that he had yet to become. "I would hate to think that his life was sacrificed in vain."

Colin nodded gravely. He understood loss and pain for the greater good. Colin clasped Mason's shoulder briefly. "I wish you luck in your life, Mason. You deserve the best."

Mason placed his hand on top of Colin's. "And you, Colin. You and Clara both. Just don't forget me." He smiled, and it was the barest hint of the playful grin that it had been just earlier that day. He turned away and knelt by the table. Colin's audience with him was over.

She looked around blearily. "What happened? I am not dead, am I? I didn't expect death to hurt this much..." Upon seeing Marcus and Mason, she tried to stand. She managed it, although she swayed on the spot and would have fallen if Colin had not come over to support her. "Not dead, then. If I were dead, my balance would be better. Erm...right, then. Thanks for not letting me die! We should be off."

Colin was quite amused and more than a little concerned with Clara's little speech, but he nodded at Mason. "We should get back to the castle. James will wonder where I've gone." Colin gave Clara a shadow of a grin. "He'll be hungry." As they moved out of the house, leaving Mason to grieve, Colin realized the state Clara was in and what a dilemma it would be to return her to the castle. "Here, you may want to smear some dirt in your face. Your clothes are too proper, but we will have to hope nobody notices. Quick, before everyone fully regains their bearings."

Clara nodded and wobbled tipsily. "I may need to be your mute, lunatic cousin or something for a while. I can't walk."

Colin almost chuckled. "You can ride Cranberry." Inspiration struck. It was an obvious solution, really, once they remembered the horse. "Cover your face with your cloak and pretend you're asleep. I can say that my cousin hasn't woken yet and since I live in the castle I can go to the royal physician."

Clara nodded. "So no more walking?"

Colin shook his head. "No, Clara. No more walking."

She grinned and hoisted herself aboard Cranberry. This took her a few tries, because she was still recovering from a nasty bump on the head and near death. She pulled her good over her head clumsily and slumped over Cranberry's neck.

Hey, boy. Be good, okay? I do not feel so well and I need you to not let me fall.

Cranberry snorted indignantly. You are the only human I know who can understand us. I would never hurt you, accident or no.

Thanks. Clara smiled under her cowl. Despite everything that had transpired, she was going to have to get used to a normal life again.

Colin led Cranberry and Clara through the castle gates. To the guard, he said, "My cousin! She is still asleep. The rest of us woke up, but she has not! Please, I am a servant of the royal household, servant to Prince James himself!" The guard's expression told Colin that he was over-acting a bit, but there was no going back. He kept the frantic, scared expression on his face and thanked the guard profusely as he was let in. Just in case the guard was watching, Colin urged Cranberry into a trot. Clara jounced along on the horse's back.

Oi! Colin! What was that for?

All part of the act, Clara. Hold tight until we get to Didacus.

Humph. A bit of warning next time, all right?

Are you anticipating that there will be a next time?

Shut up, Colin. It was a figure of speech!

Laughing softly to himself, Colin pulled Clara and Cranberry into the stable. Looking around furtively to make sure they were not being watched, Colin helped Clara down. Then he quickly untacked Cranberry, leaving it all in a pile for an unfortunate stable boy to pick up and be blamed for. Clara sent the horse back to his stall, and he nuzzled her hair briefly before clip-clopping off.

Clara stumbled her way to her room. She was still not recovered. If anything, she was worse. Colin was helping her, yes, but there were just so many stairs between Clara and her lovely bed.

They finally reached Clara's room. "Why would anyone put this room at the top of a tower?" Clara huffed.

"Probably so that it is harder for people to get in," Colin said thoughtfully. Eve was not there, he noticed. She had probably started checking on people as soon as she was out of danger. He wondered how her shoulder was, then how he could remember her potential shoulder injury at a time like this.

"And harder to get out of." Clara threw herself on the bed. "What if I was in trouble up here? Guards would run, sure, but if I were truly in peril then they wouldn't reach me quickly enough!" She tried to sit up and take her slippers off, but she gave up and kicked then off with her feet instead. "Well, I suppose I could defend myself, but with what? There is nothing up here even remotely sharp, and even if there was, I can't swing a sword or lift something heavy enough to hit someone and actually be something other than a distraction! The most I can do is drive a plow, and I can't even do that very well." Clara's eyes were slipping closed again.

Her little speech reminded Colin of something that he and his fellow conspirators had forgotten. Melanie had had training lessons with James until she was thirteen, at which point it had been unladylike to continue her lessons. She knew enough to stay safe, and that was all that she needed, according to the King.

Colin patted Clara on the shoulder. She was already fast asleep. Then he ran to go find James. Clara had more years of lessons to make up.

James was still asleep when Colin ran into his room. Colin rolled his eyes and woke him up. "James! James, how on earth are you still asleep? You have been asleep for three days! JAMES!"

The prince finally awoke. His hair was a mess, extra tousled and tangled from sleeping for so long. "Colin!" James's eyes were unfocused. When he had woken up a bit more, he said, "How dare you address me as such! I am your prince and you will treat me dutifully." Colin waited for the rest of the message to sink in. "Wait, three days? Colin nodded, glad that something had made it through the prince's thick skull. Then he waited for the obvious follow-up question, "How did you know it was three days?" and hastily began composing a realistic answer.

But James seemed disinclined to acquiesce to the norm. "Did you have something to ask me?" He yawned. "I'm starving! Fetch me something to eat. Why did you wake me but forget breakfast?"

Colin glanced pointedly out of the windows. "It is nearly evening, sire. Would you prefer a light dinner?"

James threw a pillow at his manservant. "Breakfast would be fine, Colin. Thank you for your concern," he sneered. Colin was just glad to see that James was all right, and their banter cheered him up considerably.

Colin did go and fetch the prince his breakfast (he didn't become the right-hand servant of the crown prince by being disobedient, after all). Over some sausage and apples, James and Colin discussed Clara's tutelage. It would be absolutely necessary, since Melanie knew how to defend herself. If it was even a slight issue, Clara would have to as well. Once they had reached that conclusion, James declared that he was far too busy with princely duties to teach. Colin was not very good at swordsmanship; all he knew was that the sharp end was supposed to go in the other guy before their sharp end went into you.

"What about Eve?" Colin suggested. James snorted.

"Eve's a woman! What could she know about swords?" James exclaimed. Colin rolled his eyes at the narrow-minded prince.

"Eve, like your sister, has been watching you train the knights for some years now. She became Melanie's servant right after Melanie stopped with her lessons. She needed someone to practice with, someone who would not tell the King. Who better than a new maid, desperate to prove herself?" James looked like he was having trouble following Colin's logic, but he nodded anyway. "As Eve became a higher servant, right hand to the princess, she had to be able to defend her charge in case of an emergency," Colin continued. "She's quite good. Do you remember last year when we were attacked by bandits?" Colin waited for James to nod slowly again. "She helped fend them off as much as you did. If you are indeed too busy, then Clara and Eve can both watch you train and Eve can help her learn. It will work."

James blinked, then stretched languidly. "I only heard about half of that. But I trust your judgment on this matter, just as I did when you suggested switching the twins." James suddenly looked less like a sleepy child and more like the king he was to become. "You have helped the kingdom much by removing Melanie and her poison from the heart of the castle. Even if no one else knows, I do. And I appreciate it."

Startled by this unexpected kindness from James, Colin stammered, "Thank you, Sire, but you should really be thankful for your sister. She's the one who will change things." Afraid he had overstepped his bounds, Colin quickly added, "I should be going now. Erm...let me know if you need anything," he finished lamely. He left quickly to check on Clara again.

Clara had not awakened yet, but Eve had returned. Colin sat down with his friend to explain the situation with Clara. "She needs help. This attack just proved that she will need to defend herself. Will you help and ensure that she watches the knights?"

Eve looked unsure. "I...yes, of course I'll help, but it will cut into her learning from the books. If I push the time, she won't have much of the afternoon to herself." Colin gave her a look and Eve surrendered with a sigh. "The kingdom is more important than free time. You are right. I will tell her when she wakes; you look like you could use some sleep. I've done enough sleeping for a long while." Eve shot him a wry grin.

Colin yawned. He had not realized just how tired he was. The sun had almost set, and it sat like fat, buttery-gold apple on the purple and red horizon. Time passed very quickly when you could be killed. Colin trudged off to bed.

Clara did not wake until nearly noon the next day. Eve had stayed up by her bedside. When Clara did wake, however, Eve explained everything. Unfortunately, Clara only heard about half of it. She had a pounding headache and winced whenever Eve was too loud. As soon as Eve was done talking, at her usual level of over-abundant vocabulary and energy, Clara whispered, "I've got an awful headache. I think I need to see Didacus."

"Oh!" Eve exclaimed. Clara grimaced at the loud noise and the echoing reverberations in her skull. "Oh," Eve said again, very softly. "I'll go fetch him for you. Would you like something to eat while I'm out?"

Clara shook her head, sending it to throbbing. She fell back into her pillows. It was one the first times she had ever refused an offer of food. Eve figured that Clara really was hurting, and she ran down the corridors to Didacus's chambers.

Didacus left after administering Clara a potion to help her sleep. She slept deeply, and when she woke again, Eve was gone but James was by her bedside. This woke her up more surely than anything else would have. "James?" she asked, her voice husky from disuse. She cleared her throat. "What are you doing here?"

"I can't check in on my sister?" he replied.

Clara rubbed her hand over her face and struggled to sit up straighter. "You barely even know me. In the weeks I've been here, you have basically ignored me."

"That is only because you are not meant to be here," he said. Clara gave him a hurt look and started to roll over. James made to grab her shoulder, but was unsure how she was ill, and decided against it. "I only meant that you're not Melanie, and besides, she's meant to be missing. I don't even like Melanie all that much, I never visited her either-"

But once again, James had said the wrong thing. "So you can't even tell the difference between Melanie and I? That must be why you haven't bothered seeing me, if you can't tell the difference between us!" Clara shouted.

"Well I've already gotten to know her! If I know one of you then I know both of you!" James yelled back. Then he seemed to realize what he had said. "Clara-"

She turned away. "Get out," she said softly. That was the only dismissal James needed, and in moments he was gone. Clara fell back on the pillows, exhausted and drained. Her own brother couldn't be bothered to learn anything about her but her name.

With that thought lingering in her mind, Clara fell back asleep.

*****

"All right then. Shall I go through the names again?" Eve asked.

Clara bit her lip resolutely and stared through the window. Thank goodness, it was painted so that it was reflective on the outside; that way no one could see in. "No, I can do it. Maybe. Okay," she said, and pointed to a round knight with a red plume and a red and blue crest. "That one's Sir Rory, Rory is red, it's the R's."

"No, sorry," Eve said. "Sir Rory is over there, with the blue." She gestured towards a tall, wiry knight with a blue plume and a blue and purple crest. "Sir John is the red, I remember he's red because he loves to eat jam."

Clara paused in her confused recollecting. "Jam? Aren't knights supposed to be strong and manly? What's so manly about jam?"

Eve laughed and smacked Clara on the arm. "He is a knight because he is a tactician. He used to be a fighter, but he was injured. Now he just plans different formations and routes to avoid bandits."

"And eats a lot of jam," Clara could not resist adding.

"Yes, yes, alright! Now who's green?" Eve said, coaxing Clara back on topic.

"Green...is Sir Paine?" Clara said cautiously.

"Incorrect again, Clara. Green is Sir Sam." Eve pointed at the tall knight with the green plume.

"Oh, I thought you meant green in the crest! Sir Paine has a brown plume, but a green and brown crest, right?" Clara was fairly sure of this. She liked Sir Paine because he had an affinity for horses and was the one who trained the young pages and squires to care for their charges' horses.

"It's all very confusing. Let's assume that I'm only going to ask about the plume colors, all right?" Eve said slightly patronizingly. In her defense, she just wanted to keep Clara focused. Clara made a face and they continued with the game.

Clara could only identify Sir Paine, Sir John, and her own brother Sir James by the end (and that was just because of the kingdom's gryphon crest emblazoned on his shield and breastplate). She could maybe identify the others by height or build, but if they ever weren't wearing armor she would not have recognized them if they had been right in front of her.

By the end of the week, however, Eve's teaching had worked its magic. Thankfully, there were only twelve knights in James's elite group, one from each of the courtier families. Each family had their own colors and crest, and when Clara could identify the knights by that alone, she and Eve began their work.

"Clara, watch Sir Wallis. Do you see how he twisted the sword so that Sir Karl couldn't get it locked?" Eve asked. Clara watched the turquoise plume and the black plume waving madly as their owners battled. Sir Karl's sword crashed to the dirt, and Sir Wallis tapped the turquoise and gray crest of a set of scales on Sir Karl's chest. They both laughed and picked up their swords, clearing the dirt for the next sparring match.

"So Sir Wallis did the twisty thing..." Clara demonstrated in the air with her hand. "In order for Sir Karl not to lock their swords. Then he did something like this-" She thrust at the invisible opponent. "And sort of-" A twist of the body, quick flick of the wrist, and there was an imaginary sword on the ground, "wrenched the sword away, since Sir Karl's guard was down and his weight was forward from trying to lock." Clara glanced at Eve for confirmation. "Right? Something like that, anyway..."

Eve nodded, but took up a stance of her own. "Sort of. You were close. Sir Wallis did the 'twisty thing', as you chose to put it, and then spun..." Her skirts swirled through the air. "To get under Sir Karl's guard. Then he did this." Eve imitated the disarming.

Imaginary fight forgotten, Clara put her hands on her hips. "You're very graceful about all this. I am about as graceful as an ox. And in this case looking all fancy is an advantage, as long as you're still quick, because if you make it look like a dance then your opponent could be mesmerized, allowing more opportunity," she said.

"I am not here to talk tactics with you, Clara, just the basic ideas. If you want to be more technical, you will have to wait until you can meet Sir John," said Eve. "Quickly, now, the next match is beginning." It was Sir Thomas, the youngest recruit with a grey plume and a grey and orange dragon crest, against Sir Elliot, whose father, according to Eve, was awarded with a yellow plume for an outstanding action of valor, which also accounted for the crest, a yellow sun against a deep brown backing.

Sir Elliot disarmed Sir Thomas quickly and efficiently, and Clara could not see what he had done. She turned to Eve. "What was that? It was so...effective!"

"I didn't see either. We are rather far away," Eve admitted with a shrug. Like so many times where something small but unfortunate had occurred, Clara wished she could just admit her magic and solve the problem in a quick, easy way, like maybe...zooming into the field but staying invisible. She did not know how to do something like that but it sounded interesting enough to try.

"Ah, well. Doesn't matter much now, does it?" Clara tried to sound indifferent. Sirs Stephen and Burt took their places, and Clara and Eve settled in to simply watch rather than try to learn. Sir Burt was quite distinctive, what with the black and white checkerboard pattern on his shield and the inconceivably spotless white plume. He was among the King's right-hand men, and to get there one had to be quite good. So, Clara was not surprised in the least when he beat Sir Stephen handily.

"Sir Burt is practically immortal!" Clara remarked. "I don't believe I've ever seen him lose a match."

"You have only seen him compete a few times this week, and you only knew it was him this once," Eve said.

"Well, I've seen enough of big sweaty men fighting to notice a good fighter when I see one," Clara insisted. Eve held her hands up in defeat, which Clara grudgingly accepted. It seemed that Eve simply wanted to placate her rather than provoke: a nice thought but it made Clara feel like a child. She stuck her tongue out in a childish way before conceding that yes, learning time was over. She did not think that she could fit much more sword work in her head.

So Eve and Clara moved on to academics again. After a few months, Clara had learned to speak like Melanie and hold herself like royalty, not to mention all of the new vocabulary, but she was still having trouble with the whole "be graceful always, walk like you are floating" concept. So once Clara had the general idea that most of the books provided, they worked on posture and walking.

Toe first, then the heel. Tap my ankle with the other foot. Keep weight low. Toe, heel. It felt a bit like a dance to her. Step, point toes, step. She strode purposefully but gracefully across the room with her book on her head. Halfway to Eve, Clara stumbled over a shoe lying in the middle of the floor. She herself had left it there. The book tumbled from her head. "Argh!" Clara kicked the shoe back towards where she had come from and moaned and groaned but picked the book up anyway. She heard a burst of laughter from the doorway and turned to see Colin laughing at her. "What?" Clara asked indignantly. He only laughed harder. She was about to place the book on her head again as she asked, "Okay, I know what. But why are you here?"

He sobered immediately. Uh oh. Clara slowly lowered her hands. "James has just told me that..." He paused, as though unsure how to say something. James pushed through the door and knocked Colin on the arm.

"What's taking so long? Have you told her yet?" James asked imperiously. Colin shook his head. He did not bother telling the prince that he had only just arrived. "Well then I will. Clara," James began. "If the Lady Melanie is not found soon, the King will put someone else in charge of finding her." Clara sucked in a quick breath. That was bad news indeed. "I would estimate that you only have about two weeks left for your training before that happens," James went on, oblivious to Clara's discomfort.

She dropped the book on her foot. Wincing, she inquired, "Two weeks?" James nodded gravely. Clara stormed over to Eve and said forcefully, "I am going back across."

Eve nodded fearfully. Clara bent her knees very gently and stepped, no, glided across the room. She had almost reached the other end, a preemptive smile already spreading across her face at the seemingly easy victory, when she tripped on that annoying shoe again. The book tumbled from her head.

Colin's laughter began, and was soon joined by Eve's ladylike titters and a deep, hearty laugh that Clara realized was coming from James. After giving her brother a lingering look, she joined in. She could not help it. The whole situation was so ridiculous. Their laughter floated through the room, releasing some of the tension they all felt and improving Clara's darkened mood towards James a bit.

Days passed, until only five were left before Clara was to be revealed. And at last, Clara knew her entire learning volume backwards and forwards (well, maybe not backwards). "I'm worried that it won't be enough," Eve fretted. "Melanie had years to learn all of this, and you've only had a few months..."

"It will be fine!" Clara said. Suddenly, the book that had been balancing on her head tumbled to the floor.

Eve shivered and tapped herself on the shoulders then tapped Clara; it was one of her religious motions for warding away evil. Eve was quite religious and superstitious, and she always wore a fine-chain necklace with little clay beads that she rubbed when she got nervous. "It's an omen," she said ominously.

"We will be fine," Clara said again, trying to reassure her friend. But inside, she was shaken up. Would it be enough?


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