Stay True

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Chapter 8

Unfortunately, the eminent feast gave Eve an excuse to make Clara practice her linguistics. Clara scowled and frowned her way through an entire hour of accented tongue twisters, trying to retain Melanie's slight accent. She nearly gave up, but Eve pressed her on.

"Come on, Clara. One more time. Red leather-" Eve would begin.

"Yellow leather. Red leather..." And on it went, until Clara could say anything like Melanie. Just in time, too, for the day that Clara had eagerly been awaiting the end of had slipped away until there were only two hours left until the feast. Clara and Eve heard the clock chime the half hour and were startled out of their practicing.

"The feast! We only have two hours!" Clara exclaimed.

Eve stood abruptly and towed Clara to the bathtub. "You need to get ready. I will fetch your gown. I assume you can draw your own bath?"

A bit startled by this treatment, Clara only nodded mutely while Eve rushed off. Clara was not even sure Eve caught the look before attending to her duties.

Clara bathed quickly, dried, and was struggling to lace up her corset over her own shift when Eve returned with a wonderful gown. It was a sort of shimmery ivory color that would set off Clara's skin and hair nicely, and when Clara stopped in her string-tugging to look closer, she found that the surface was embroidered with thousands of tiny, brilliant crystal beads. They shimmered and made the dress look almost as if it were made of a cascading waterfall of fabric. Clara reached out to feel a sleeve and the dress itself even felt like water.

Eve adjusted the corset properly and helped Clara slip into the dress. It clung to her perfectly, the latest style. It became Clara's instant favorite. She almost could not bear to wear it out of her room for fear something terrible would befall it with her natural clumsiness. In her head, she began referring to it as "the dress". Definitive the. Even though she had only had it for maybe an hour, she loved it.

Finally, it was time for the feast. Clara looked resplendent in her new gown and Eve's expert cosmetics. As she was walking towards the dining room, a purple-and-gold bedazzled Eve in tow, Colin ran up. Clara raised an eyebrow at him. He stopped abruptly and looked Clara up and down, blushing slightly. She looked so wonderful, but he-

"Are those gold boots?"

Colin squeezed his eyes shut in embarrassment. "Yes. I would not have been allowed to go to the feast otherwise..." He trailed off as he saw Clara and Eve both giggling into their hands. "Oh, hush up, you two." He handed Clara the necklace he was carrying. "This is for you, Clara. From the King."

It was a delicate white flower hanging from a long, fine chain. Clara immediately slipped it on. "Shall we continue to the feast?" she said, making sure her accent was in place.

"I'm impressed! You really sound like her now," Colin said. Clara glanced around for anyone who had heard, but the last people to have passed were already far away from them.

"Colin! Be careful!" Clara hissed. Colin raised his hands defensively and mouthed, Sorry.

Clara smiled at him. "It does not really matter. But I cannot be late to my own party!" she said in her best impression of the princess. And with that, she swept past him into the dining room. Colin and Eve followed her a bit more slowly, and as Colin opened the heavy door for Eve, they nearly ran into Clara. She had stopped just inside the door, for the sight in front of her was remarkable.

The room when Clara had dined with the King before had been lovely, if a little too open. There was room for easily three hundred people to stand comfortably, but with only the one long table the room had seemed forlorn. Now, there were the promised hundreds of people; nobility hovering by the drinks, knights laughing and pushing each other into things, servants roving about with pitchers, and the King, sitting at the head of the tables and surveying it all. There were three tables instead of just one, arranged in a "u" shape, and they were groaning with sides of beef, entire roasted boars, and ducks and chickens. There were also many small platters of various exotic fruits. Clara was overwhelmed and stood frozen, trying to take in the sheer amount of it all, when Sir Karl came up to her and handed her a goblet. He seemed to have had a few cups of mead already, and he was slurring his words slightly.

"Here, Melanie. Er, Lady. This stuff's fantastic! I can't wait to get into the food..." He raised his eyebrows at a passing maid with a swing in her step. "Among other things." He staggered away.

Clara turned to Eve and Colin, her mouth agape. Colin, smirking slightly, managed to find somewhere else to be, while Eve explained quietly that Sir Karl was constantly making lewd jokes and got drunk very quickly. He was also rather fond of women. Clara's eyes kept getting bigger and bigger, although she had managed to shut her mouth. She had always thought of Sir Karl as one of the, well, knightlier knights. Clara, having been fairly sheltered growing up and not one for bawdy things herself, was slowly coming to the realization that there were not many like her in the castle and that she would have to adapt quickly to this new way.

Despite the night getting off to a rather odd start, Clara had a wonderful time. Soon after she arrived, the King spotted her and brought her up to the head of the table, where she and James stood flanking him like guards; she on the left, as the inferior, adopted woman, he on the right, the strong right-hand-man of the King. The King began a speech about how wonderful it was that Melanie had returned, how he had missed her so, and did he mention how amazing it was that she was back? Clara just had to look tearful and happy, which she thought she managed to pull off rather well. Colin and Eve, now armed with pitchers, both kept shooting her and each other glances, as if to say, Isn't he laying it on a bit thick? Nobody will believe that he is truly happy to have her back. But the mind-fogging meads had done their job well. The guests let out a drunken cheer when the speech was finished, and fell upon the food like locusts.

After the plethora of food had been eaten or cleared away, the servants pushed the tables to the sides of the room to make space for milling about and dancing. A small group of musicians was brought in, and they struck up a lively tune. James dragged Clara into the cleared space as the music began, and she tried to pull away as discreetly as possible.

"Oh, no, really, I can't..." she tried to tell him. He just grinned and pulled her into the beginnings of the dance. Despite her clumsiness, Clara actually was a good dancer, and as the dance progressed, she found she was enjoying herself, lost in the dips and spins. She was sorry to see the song end, but a nobleman took her hand just as she finished.

"Lady Melanie! It has been too long since we last saw each other," he said, sweeping her across the floor. Clara nodded, still coming down from the first dance. She scanned her brain, trying to remember who this fellow was. Graying hair, neatly trimmed beard...neither of those was very helpful in narrowing things down. She glanced down at his clothing. Green and grey. Those were the colors of the province Weor, making him...

"Yes, Duke Alan. We must visit each other more often," Clara said with a smile. She felt as though she had just passed some sort of test.

Her tests went on, whether it be remembering the steps of a dance as well as the many dukes and earls and barons in the room or preventing one of those dukes or earls or barons who had had a bit much to drink from pinching her. After a few songs, Clara claimed fatigue and sought out Eve to ensure that she did, in fact, know everyone's names. To her surprise, she had correctly deduced most of the nobility, and those whom she had guessed incorrectly attributed it to length of time away from each other.

Eve and Clara agreed, after simply observing all for a time, that the knights were by far the most entertaining to watch. As Clara accompanied Eve on her rounds with her pitcher, they saw Sir Wallis holding Sir Karl back from attempting to grab another young wench that had tickled his drunken fancy, while Sir Paine watched on, sipping a goblet of wine. Sir Thomas had taken to the dance floor, gentleman that he was, and had many an adoring lady on his arm. Clara almost did not recognize him at first. He had curly reddish hair, which she never would have known. She had never seen him without his helmet on before. Sir Richard was also dancing. Clara had shared a dance with him, and found that he was quite nice, if a bit thick-skulled. Sir Stephen and Sir Rory were engaged in a heated discussion about politics and ethics, while Sir Burt and Sir Elliot stood near the King, overseeing everything while engaged in amiable discussion. Sir John appeared stuck to one of the long tables that bore the remains of the feast, still picking at scraps. Once Eve and Clara had made it partway around the room, Sir Sam and Sir Jacob joined them and seemed quite content to joke and share stories about each of the other knights for a time before returning to the dancing.

"Who knew that Sir Paine nearly married Lady Viviana?" Clara said.

"Oh, that was a rather large scandal a few years back. I am not surprised you did not hear of it; not much word spread beyond the castle. I am most surprised that your own brother nearly killed Sir Burt," Eve responded.

"And merely over a pie!" Clara laughed.

"He was enchanted," Eve insisted.

"That doesn't make it much less ridiculous," said Clara.

After a pause, Eve leaned in closer to Clara and said, "You know, I think Sir Sam fancies you."

Clara's mouth popped open. "No! Certainly not!" Eve raised an eyebrow suggestively. "No, he's just being nice," Clara insisted. "And besides, if he fancies someone, it's Melanie, not me."

Before they could discuss it any more, Eve had to leave Clara to refill her pitcher, and Clara was sucked back into the dancing by the new Earl of Ardoth, Earl Julian.

The night wore on, and just before the first light of morning tinged the sky, all were sent off to bed.

Back in her room, Clara removed the sparkling pins holding her hair into swirls, whorls, and curls all over her head. Since her hair was now loose about her shoulders, she noticed that it fell a good hand span or two below where it usually did.

She shrugged. She was probably just imagining things because she had one too many goblets of...wine? Mead? Well, truthfully, she was not quite sure what it had been, but it was on the strong side.

Clara was about to begin undressing for a bath when she realized that Eve was not there. Clara went into the servant's room to see if she was inside, and she was not. However, Clara's hair, which should have been about down to her hips, was then down to the back of her knees.

Now she definitely knew that she was not imagining things. Clara knew Eve was not there, and she had no idea where Colin or James was.

Her hair hit the floor and she felt intense panic and relief. She had not realized having hair that long would be so heavy! She squatted on the floor to relieve more of the weight, her hands splayed on the floor beneath her knees, as her hair spread around the room like a large, fat snake.

*****

Colin tiptoed into her room. He sincerely hoped she had not begun undressing, because not only would that be awkward but it had happened before and he was not in the mood to be yelled at.

Colin checked for Clara behind the screen. He did not actually go back there, of course, rather said "Noeshruht," and looked through it.

Now, you are probably thinking that looking through the screen is the same as going behind it, only the person being looked at does not know. That is not true. With the spell Colin used, he could only see outlines – shadows, if you will.

Colin felt his eyes glow, a sign that he successfully completed the spell, and saw only a washtub and a small mass on the floor-a towel, perhaps, or a robe.

Quickly, before the spell wore off, he scanned the room. Behind the curtains-no. Why he thought she would be there mystified him. Already in bed (Colin highly doubted this one, as the feast had ended naught but one quarter-hour ago, and he would be able to see her even without his magically enhanced eyes)-no. Eve's quarters-no.

Wait a moment, Colin thought. He slid his eyes back over to Eve's room. A shape, far too large to be Clara, was puddled on the floor. Well, he thought resignedly, I guess I am about to be roped into whatever strange thing is happening to her now. "Clara?" he called. Colin did not know how he knew, but it was Clara, lying on the floor like she was in some sort of pain. Then Colin noticed the hair.

The room was practically full of it, and it was still growing. She was the epicenter of this monstrosity, and something was very, very wrong.

Until Colin walked into the room, Clara was scared for her life. She had lain down, because her hair was growing so rapidly that her head just kept feeling heavier and heavier. The hair felt like it was shooting out of Clara's scalp, like someone had a tight hold on her hair and was just pulling on it. She also had reason to believe that her hair was enchanted to feel heavier so as to incapacitate her.

Colin arrived, and seemed surprised by the sheer amount of Clara's hair. Well, who would like to walk in to her, lying on the floor in pain, surrounded and completely covered by her own hair?

He asked, "What happened, Clara?" and sat down beside her. Clara could guess what he was thinking. A spell went wrong, or perhaps she did it just for the attention it would bring.

"Isn't it obvious?" Clara said, perhaps a bit too sharply. "I've been enchanted!"

He seemed taken aback, before figuring out what to do. "Well, have you tried cutting it?"

She suppressed the urge to roll her eyes. How could he think that cutting it wasn't the first thought that entered her head? Calm down, Clara told herself. He is not I, and does not know how I feel. "I can barely lift my head," Clara explained. "How could I possibly get to the dagger under my pillow if I can't even lift my head?"

The dagger was for safety reasons. There were many people who would like to kill the Lady Melanie, and if Clara (for all intensive purposes) was she, then she stood at risk to be killed. Clara told everyone that the dagger was fake, only for keeping away nightmares, which was not really lying since Colin had enchanted it for her so that it did. "Besides, even if we did cut it now, there would be too much of it to deal with at the moment."

Clara let out an involuntary gasp as a possibility of her fate occurred to her. "Oh no."

"What? What is it?" Colin was startled by her exclamation.

Clara gulped down a fresh wave of fear. "If I stay here, with all of this-," she gestured to her hair, though that was unnecessary. What else would she be speaking of? "-I could suffocate from it covering my airways, and it gets longer by the moment."

"So swing it over your shoulder," Colin suggested. "Then the risk of you suffocating-" he shuddered over the word. "-would be far less."

"No, it is not!" How could he not have realized this? "If it is over my shoulder, it will drag my head forwards, and then I will be pressed face down on the floor!"

He stopped and thought while absentmindedly playing with a strand of her hair.

Colin only pretended to think. In reality, he already had a solution. It was rather simple, but it would do until Colin got Didacus, or, rather, his library, to help reverse the enchantment.

Colin was holding her hair, and instead of thinking about a solution was concentrating on remembering the feel of her hair, should she never let him touch it again. He had always loved her hair. It was so thick and shimmery. He was surprised that she did not take the hair he was holding back. Maybe she did not notice, or maybe she-

He stopped himself mid-thought. I cannot think in maybes, he thought.

Colin noticed that Clara was looking at him expectantly. Why? Oh yes! A solution.

"I was thinking..." he began, but was interrupted by a snicker from Clara.

"What?" Colin said.

"You were thinking?" She giggled. "That's a first." Apparently unable to hide her mirth any longer, she burst out laughing.

Colin smacked her arm. "Yes, I was thinking. May I finish now?"

She sobered up immediately. "Yes. I am sorry. This issue is far more important than silly jokes."

Thank you, he thought. Then he continued. "So I thought, I know it seems to get heavier by the minute, but really concentrate. Does it?"

She screwed up her face. After a few moments, she replied, "No. I suppose it hasn't gotten heavier in a little while." She brightened. "Maybe it's stopped growing! Still hurts, though."

Colin hunted for the bottom of her hair. Once he found it (this took a little while) he declared, "Nope! It's still at it!"

Colin told her his idea. She sighed. "Fine," she said. "Let's try it,"

Together (though Clara got Colin to do most of the work, since her head was still too heavy to lift very much) they hoisted Clara's hair out the window and into the moonlit courtyard. It was so long by then that it nearly hit the cobblestones below the tower room.

Clara turned her back to it and slid ever so slowly down the wall underneath the window until she was seated once again. Then she turned to Colin. "What will I do?"

"We," he corrected her. "I'll stay with you."

"You can't," Clara said, and his face fell slightly. "It's not that I don't want you to," she added hastily, and he brightened again to his usual cheery self. "It's just that you need to take care of James, and you know how he gets."

"Yes, I do!" he said, and they laughed together. They stopped quickly. "However, I believe the matter of your hair takes precedence over tending to the spoiled prince."

"Ah," Clara said. "Well." She did not know what else to say.

"Well," he said back. They seemed to be having many of those moments lately, where neither one of them had anything to say and the silence was not comfortable, but awkward.

"Um, so I guess I'll see you in the morning? Unless you don't want to come back," Clara said far too quickly, her voice higher than normal.

"Of course I'm coming back!" he said, looking affronted. "I'll see you then." On his way out, he gave her a huge, toothy, silly grin and a wave, before running into the wall an entire pace away from the door.

Clara laughed as he spun away from the impact. "See you tomorrow, Colin!" she called as he exited through the door rather than the wall. "If you survive that long," she muttered.

Hey! "I heard that!" Colin yelled back, and heard her shout of laughter.

I made her laugh, he thought. Then the bruises are somewhat worth it. Smiling, he went to James' room, whistling happily the whole way.

*****

Clara had not realized that she had fallen asleep until she woke up feeling horribly stiff. Then the events of the previous night came rushing back to her, along with a pounding headache. She groaned and rested her head against the wall. Her head hurt a lot, and had been hurting for hours, but she found that she could lift her head now.

She stood up slowly. Her hair was right where it should have been, tumbling down her back, as long as it had been before the enchantment hit. Clara shook her head to rid herself of some of the confusion, but only succeeded in making herself dizzy. She stumbled into her room and collapsed on the bed. Eve was not yet back from the cleanup of the feast. When Clara looked at the clock, she realized that it was nearly ten. She had slept far longer than she had planned.

Clara heaved herself out of her bed and looked around. She was still in her feast dress, which had become horribly wrinkled. Clara was so out of sorts that she did not even mourn the fate of her favorite dress, but clumsily pulled it off and made herself look a bit more presentable by scrubbing the makeup off her face and attempting something in the way of an everyday dress.

Fortunately, most were still recovering from the events of the night and, being accustomed to being royalty, were sleeping in far later than Clara. She traipsed through the castle, mulling everything over despite the dull ache that filled her head.

She thought the whole mess was pure imagination for a short while. On her way to Colin, Clara had decided that she was just going a little mad and had hallucinated the events of the night, including his presence. However, once she actually reached him and consulted him, she was forced to conclude that it was not a figment of her imagination, because he remembered it all. This brought her back to the beginning with regards to the question of why the spell was gone. Colin said he had not removed it himself. He was powerful enough to do such a thing, but he did not know how.

They both went to Didacus. His vast wealth of knowledge was nearly as expansive as the library, and far less time consuming than searching the shelves. He said that the enchantment was likely temporary, either intentionally as just a scare tactic or unintentionally, in which case they had a bit more to worry about. If the enchanter was hoping to cause Clara trouble, Didacus explained, which they clearly were, then all they needed to do was indispose her in some way. However, if the enchantment was meant to last, then the sorcerer behind it knew that Clara, or someone close to her, had magic and was pressing them into danger in order to reveal themselves.

This all seemed a bit farfetched to Clara, but Colin was nodding along like he had heard it before and rather agreed with it, and Clara found herself bobbing her head in agreement as well. But once they had left Didacus to his duties, retreating into the antechamber should they require his assistance again, Clara began peppering Colin with questions.

"Was it Melanie that did this to me?"

"If it was Melanie, how did she do it?"

"Does Melanie want to kill me?"

"If she does, why is she just trying to scare me?"

"Is that all she is doing?"

Colin eventually silenced her with a wave of his hand. He could not have gotten a word in otherwise. "We need to look at this logically. Since the spell had no lasting damage, it can be assumed that whoever it is is simply trying to frighten you, make you lose focus." He waited for Clara to nod her understanding before continuing. "As for how Melanie did this, or if she is even behind this at all, I have no answer. She may not have done this, although I personally believe that to be extremely unlikely. Scaring someone into thinking that rebellion is not even an option is her style. How she got close enough to enchant you is beyond me. She could have been in disguise, or she could have had someone here under her command."

"But...how can we find out for sure?" Clara asked uncertainly. She wanted to know what was going on.

"We can start by figuring out what spell she used on you. Once we do that, we can determine whether or not it was meant to be temporary, the range at which she could have cast it, and, perhaps most importantly, how it got to you in the first place," said Colin.

"You mean if someone put it in my drink or something?" Clara questioned.

"Yes, precisely. Unfortunately, this means we may have to hit the books. Fortunately, we have got Didacus on our side this time. He can tell us specifically where to look."

Clara grinned. "Excellent. Let's get this figured out!"

Colin grinned back. "I know of a legend where a girl is trapped in a tower and her hair is enchanted to grow much faster than normal. But it happens over a span of sixteen years in the story. Maybe what happened to you was similar, but accelerated?"

"Perhaps." Clara shrugged. "It's so strange to think that what happened to me is something straight out of a storybook!"

Colin nodded. "Yes. Although, I must say, ever since I started working in the castle, things have seemed more like a story."

"What if we are just a story?" Clara said. "You know, in a book. Cursed to be characters living out the same story over and over, forever and ever, something like that."

Colin clutched his head in mock pain. "Ah, that is too much for my poor mind. I cannot comprehend such depth!"

Clara giggled, and they left to consult Didacus again. He sent them off in search of a book called "Spousta Vlasů", which apparently meant something along the lines of hair enchantments. It was bound in faded blue linen and had the title embossed on the cover in gold. Colin and Clara flipped through it together, but unfortunately, the book was in the same foreign language as the title. Clara spotted a picture of a woman wrapped in her own hair. "Maybe this is it?" she asked Colin.

He muttered something under his breath – "nadoehdeg" – making his eyes glow, and then said to Clara, "No, I don't think this is it. This says something about..." He squinted. "Enchanting something..."

"That's what happened, right?" Clara said.

"Yes, but this is enchanted to...strangle, I think. Not just grow," Colin replied.

"Oh." Clara turned the page. The next picture was rather gruesome, and she flipped it over quickly before she could think about it too much.

The searching took them quite some time, since it was a large book and many illustrations looked promising. Colin used the translation spell a few more times, and finally, towards the end, they found what they thought was the right spell.

"Of course it would be near the end," Clara grumbled. Colin just shrugged and hefted the book so they could return to Didacus and he could help them puzzle out what it all meant.

Didacus groused about being unable to continue with his duties at the time ("I do have to work occasionally, you know!"), but he reluctantly agreed to help them. Eventually. When Colin plopped the open book down in front of him, Didacus adjusted his glasses and leaned closer. "Oh, that's interesting. Very curious." He trailed off, muttering to himself, leaving Clara and Colin feeling muddled.

"Er...sorry, but...what is it that's so interesting?" Clara asked after a moment of silence. Didacus jumped slightly, seemingly coming out of a reverie, and stared at her.

"My dear...this spell is incredibly dangerous. It would require a great deal of power to cast. You were very lucky that it was performed incorrectly," he said. Clara blinked, confused. Colin was staring at Didacus now, wanting to know what it was that Clara escaped so narrowly that he could safeguard against in the future.

Seeing the confusion on the faces of the two of them, Didacus sighed and leaned back in his chair. Clara and Colin both leaned in expectantly. "I have not seen this particular enchantment used in a very, very long time," Didacus said. "It came about as an invention of torture and coercion - a way to get people to think they were going mad so they would talk. Many combined it with a different spell for more effect..." Didacus flipped to the first promising page that Clara had found, the hair strangling someone. "This practice was widely stopped about a century ago, because magic was outlawed at that same time. There were sporadic cases here and there, but nothing happened as commonly as it had. Someone meant you a great deal of harm by placing this upon you," Didacus said gravely. Clara could do nothing but nod slightly, stunned. She suddenly felt very fortunate that something had gone awry in the casting of the terrible spell and that nothing worse had been attempted.

"I am quite glad that nothing too serious occurred," Clara said, regaining some composure. "But...was the spell intended to be temporary?" Or would I have been condemned to spending the rest of my life locked up, a freak with an irreversible condition? was her unspoken question.

"The spell was designed to be removed at the caster's leisure," Didacus responded, setting Clara's mind to rest. Colin's went into overdrive, quickly connecting dots that did not exist and constructing a scenario in which the evil spell caster was still in the city, and perhaps had even infiltrated the castle. It boasted security beyond any in the land, and yes, it would stand up in a siege or a war but against one person who was formidable in the magical arts there was not much that could be done.

Glancing over at Colin, who was staring at the wall with a worried expression, Clara said, "Oh, no, I know that look. You are imagining something that will not happen. Colin!" She waved a hand in front of his face, bringing him back to reality. "I'm fine now. You can relax."

Still trying to break free from the remnants of his created illusion, he said rather loudly, "What if they are still here? That is why the enchantment is gone. It did not just wear off. The spell caster is here, in the castle, and you are still in danger no matter what you say!"

"Colin!" Clara had to shout to be heard. She was looking up at him, looking very concerned and not a little bit afraid. He had not realized that he was standing, towering over the seated Clara and Didacus. Clara put a hand on his sleeve and tugged him back into his seat. Colin pulled his arm away and ran his hands through his hair, leaving his head resting in his hands.

"I don't want you to get hurt," Colin mumbled at his knees. Clara softened.

"Yes, Colin, I know, and I don't want you going all mad on me. If you are going to help me, fine. But you cannot be like this, making up crazy things in your head. That hasn't happened and it won't," Clara said soothingly.

"You don't know that," Colin murmured. "You can't know that."

"Yes, I can." As Colin brought his head back up to argue, Clara cut him off. "I can protect myself from them and I won't let anything happen."

She sat up a little bit straighter, daring Colin to disagree. He just gave her a hard, indeterminable look and said, softly, "All right." He pushed off his knees and stood. "I'm here to help in any way that I can."

Didacus, who had been simply watching the showdown, stood as well and made excuses about how much work he had to do and just leaving them to it. Clara watched him bustle off before standing herself and dusting off her skirt. "Okay. Well, then. We should probably...um...set up some sort of protective spells, maybe?" she said, looking at the floor, the walls, anything but Colin.

"Hey." Colin lightly touched Clara's shoulder, finally getting her attention and meeting her eyes.

"Aren't I supposed to say something along the lines of 'hey yourself'?" Clara said. Colin grinned at her. Clara grinned back, suddenly aware of how his hand hadn't left her shoulder. She felt almost as though she was in some sort of play, although the roles felt reversed. Clara did enjoy reading romantic plays.

With romance coming to mind, Clara stepped slightly away from the contact, causing Colin's hand to fall but hopefully passing the movement off as a simple weight shift. She was simply hoping to avoid an awkward moment, but as both of their grins faded and the eye contact remained, Clara felt the need to say something else. Shifting her eyes and clearing her throat, she asked, "So where should we start?"

*****

She thought she no longer cared for him. She pretended not to care for him, at least.

In the many months that she was away from him, integrating herself into the various village societies, she tried to convince herself that her feelings were an illusion, brought on by the stress of being in an arranged marriage or being stuck in a tree for goodness knows how long. Well, around two months, actually, which she discovered when she had reached the first village. She had been starving ever since.

But her distractions, no matter how severe, did not work. She found herself thinking about him increasingly often, searching for a glimpse of his sandy hair or the glint of his turquoise eyes in the crowds of strangers. She yearned for the sight of her prince again.

As four further months drew on, plans swirled through her head. Some were clearly destined to be futile, but she dared think many were well thought out, brilliantly planned for every possibility. She was rather proud of the sleeping incident. It all seemed like a game to her – three days to solve the riddle before people start to die. It was plenty of time, a puzzle designed so that you could win. She still nearly managed to slaughter the entire capital city. Any sorceress would be proud of that feat, and this one certainly was.

She refused to admit it to herself, but she had only one motive for creating all of these ultimately doomed plans.

Yes. She did all of these things for a boy.

Nasty and clichéd as it was, it was the truth. And she hated it. But this was the same person who believed true love was only a myth until it happened to her. Until she was set up with that prince, she had resigned herself to a loveless marriage for the purposes of uniting two kingdoms or simply gaining land. She never believed that she could actually love someone whom she would be forced to marry. Then she met her prince, and it was the end of the game. She fell in love and actually wanted to be wed.

Her mood always darkened when she thought of how she had been torn away from her love just when they had just finished planning the wedding. She knew that she had to return home, as "absence makes the heart grow fonder", but no sooner had she returned to her own kingdom than she was snatched away again, tied to a tree, and now could only live in hovels. Some people actually shared their homes with livestock.

Melanie could hardly take it anymore. She had to get back.


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