41: A Realization
“How long do we have to stay?” she asked me demurely, whispering in my ear as I held her close while we danced.
Her dress was a myriad of delightful textures; the bodice was smooth and silken but ridden with embroidery that felt like spun gold under my fingers. I would’ve given anything to be able to continue touching it. She stared into my eyes, and it felt like she saw all the way through my soul. Her cheeks were flushed from the dancing, and it did nothing but highlight the curve of her face and brighten the flecks of green in her hazel eyes. She entranced me, so much that I’d almost forgotten that she’d asked me a question.
“Until we get the signal that they’re finished,” I choked out, averting my eyes from her gaze. It was like staring directly into the sun – ill advised, and dangerous, much like her.
“What’s the signal?”
“I’ll know it when I see it,” I answered, but truly, I had no idea what the other Naga would do to get my attention.
I watched the other couples dance around us to distract myself from her, oblivious to everything else around them. I stiffened when my eyes brushed over the Usurper’s throne, and I was glad that it was empty. I knew he wouldn’t know me if he saw me now; it’d been years and years, but I couldn’t stop the immense flood of hatred that threatened to overcome me. I quashed it down, pushing away the anger, swallowing the fury so that I could accomplish what we came here to do. I would have my revenge.
“Maybe we should split up,” she suggested.
She wanted to separate... that was dangerous. Professionally, I wanted to keep her close to me in case our plan went wrong. Personally, I wanted to keep her close to me because I enjoyed her company, and she looked just so unfairly beautiful tonight. In the back of my head, I wondered if she was trying to leave me behind. She was a Suryan Mage after all, even though Renn had given her so many chances and promises. The thought scared me; but, deep down, I believed that she wanted to be a Naga just as much as the rest of us. I’d seen how she’d changed over the last few months. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say she’d actually been happy with us, with me.
I hated that I doubted her, but I couldn’t help it.
“We would be able to cover more ground that way,” she reasoned, “and since we don’t know exactly how much time we have, we should make the most of it.”
As always, her intelligence came through. I understood her logic, and nodded to show her I agreed, albeit reluctantly.
“Go dance and mingle. Find out what we’re dealing with, here,” I said roughly, masking the fear that she would leave me.
I still couldn’t look at her. She smiled, curtsied effortlessly, and left me. Her dressed floated along the floor as she walked away, giving her an ethereal appearance. She looked so sweet and beautiful in this moment that it was almost possible to forget that she was the deadliest person in the room. I needed a drink.
After a quick browse of the room for where a servant was carrying what appeared to be minuscule glasses with a sparkly, carbonated liquid, I made a beeline for the alcohol, and grabbed two glasses. He gave me an odd look, but whatever. If I was going to stay any longer in this palace filled with memories, inhabited by both my biggest fear and greatest enemy, then I needed more than one small glass. Perhaps three. I downed them both, then despite the judgmental look I received, grabbed two more. Who cared what he thought? I was here on a mission.
I downed one, replaced that glass on the servant’s tray, maintaining eye contact with the disgusted and concerned servant. I kept my fourth one to nurse while I gazed around the room. There were guards placed strategically every ten yards or so, lining the perimeter. I watched them carefully. They looked bored, mostly just watching the dancers and couples with mild interest.
I sipped slowly from my fourth drink, the bubbly liquid tingling in my throat. By the time I’d nearly finished it, I noticed that one of the guards, the one closest to the large entrance doors, was speaking to what looked like a Mage. The Mage was dressed in leather armor in a different, less flashy style, than other guards. Whatever message he was delivering, I was sure it didn’t bode well for me. When he finished speaking, the guard beckoned over another, and the two conferred while peering discreetly around the room.
I did my own examination of the ballroom, looking for Larke. She was nowhere to be found, and I would’ve spotted her voluminous white dress anywhere. My eyes flicked from side to side, trying to figure out what I should do. Was this just my paranoia, or were those guards gathering to search for us? I quickly swallowed the last sip of my fourth drink, knowing that we had to get out of here. I still couldn’t see Larke anywhere. She was a highly capable and very powerful mage, but I didn’t want to leave her behind.
The guards had gathered together, becoming a small group of three or four, joined by the Mage who had brought them whatever message several minutes ago. It was when their eyes lit on me that I knew I had to act. It was time to pull out my best move, although it would cost me greatly. My illusion magic required so much energy, I tried to avoid it as best I could. It was a high price that I paid.
I quietly turned around, and without rushing so as to not draw attention, I slid behind one of the large pillars surrounding the dance floor. The room was filled with them – magnificent, giant columns of pure, solid marble, and I found myself very thankful for their presence tonight. They were perfect cover. I focused my energy, closed my eyes, and imagined in as great detail as I could what it would look like if I were invisible. This was the most difficult kind of spell for me to cast, and I’d only done it once before. It was one thing to slightly change my appearance, but it was another to keep up invisibility for so long. I anticipated that I would have to keep this up for quite a while. And, I would have to be extra careful – illusions work best when you only have to fool one sense. The eyes are easy to trick, but if you have conflicting messages from your senses of smell, hearing, and touch, that tell you otherwise, then the illusion loses its effectiveness and sometimes stops working completely. I would have to make sure I didn’t bump into anybody in this large crowd.
The magic gathered in my mind, aching to loose itself from its mental restraints, I released it. When I opened my eyes again and looked down at my hands, I saw nothing. Perfect; my illusion had worked. I just had to retain enough focus and make sure the magical exhaustion didn’t get the best of me before I could escape. Passing out in the middle of being pursued probably wouldn’t go too well.
I wanted to leave, but I had to find Larke first. She didn’t seem to be in the ballroom anymore... perhaps the hallway? She might be out there, or even exploring somewhere else in the castle. Quietly, I tiptoed out from behind my pillar to see a larger group of guards trying to be discreet and failing. I easily avoided them, slipped past a couple who were so into each other they hadn’t even noticed the guards right next to them, and made my way towards the large entrance doors.
I exited into the hallway, and immediately saw Larke, her giant skirts were fluttering around her feet, like she was floating... and she was arm in arm with the Princess. I recognized Princess Nya, even though it had been ages since I’d seen her, too.
Even more concerning, it didn’t appear that Larke was being apprehended. Their touch looked very friendly. And even worse, Spenser was trailing behind them. I suppressed a growl of anger at his abandonment. He was supposed to be planting the implosion bombs around the castle walls!
At a reasonable distance, I decided I had to follow them. I was going to find out exactly what was happening. They walked with purpose towards what I vaguely remembered to be throne room. They walked inside, and before the door shut, I followed them in, the wooden door grazing my back.
They met in the middle of the room, Larke standing stiffly, Spenser pacing around, and Princess Nya went and made herself comfortable in her shining throne. I looked around, remembering how the marble floor echoed when my slick shoes slapped against it, how the columns that decorated the room made for infinite hiding places, and how the chandelier looked when lit ablaze with the fires of a thousand candles. It wasn’t lit now, but I could picture how the candlelight flickered above the cold hard floor, belying the sturdy marble with soft flame light mottling the surface. The room felt so much smaller than it did when I was a child.
The effort of keeping up my illusion was becoming tiring, and I hoped that they would come to their point soon. Obviously, they were here to speak to someone of high status, and given that Princess Nya had brought them here, I could only assume they were trying to see the Usurper. I had to hear what they would say.
After a few minutes, my patience was finally rewarded, and my hunch proved correct. The King and Queen had waltzed in, flanked by a few Mages, and sat in the thrones meant for the royal family, the very ones where my parents used to sit.
I listened carefully, perched up against a marble column, hearing every single word fall from Spenser and Larke’s mouths, feeling each syllable like a punch in the gut. Peeking from around the solid marble, I could just see Larke’s face in profile. Was I fooling myself, or did she look miserable?
I could feel the exhaustion creep up on me again, threatening to take over. I had to hide – and quickly! I swept behind the column I was leaning against, and felt the illusion fall away from my body. I looked down, able to see my fingers again. A wave of fatigue crashed over me, my head swimming with the consequences of my magic. Very quietly and slowly, I sank to the floor, listening to Spenser and Larke describe how the Naga were planting bombs at this very second.
The other two Naga were at risk! The Usurper assigned some Mages to go take care of them, and I stilled, hoping they wouldn’t be able to look back and see me kneeling at the base of the columns. They strut past me, not sparing a backwards glance, thank Tarah. I’ve discovered enough here; I didn’t wish to hear anything more. Larke and Spenser have banded together to betray the Naga, and consequently, me. Their lies swirled in my stomach, like a sour, painful acid circling and circling in the turbulence of my anger.
I had to ignore that for now; I had to finish this job. The planting of the bombs was crucial to our plan, and we couldn’t leave it incomplete. But what I would do? I supposed I could go in there right now, follow the Mage that was assigned to thwart us, and kill him. But, if he didn’t return, they would only come back with reinforcements, and we would both lose. My comrades would be captured, as well as myself, I was sure, and the bombs wouldn’t even be planted.
I held back a chuckle. A better idea occurred to me that just might work. Silently, I inched my back up the column to standing. My head swum again, but I shook it off. I would have to resume my illusion of invisibility. Again, I repeated the process, focusing and imagining my invisibility in my head until I could no longer hold it in. Invisible once more, I took silent steps, tiptoeing across the marble floor, and slipped out the door that the Mage had left ajar in their hurry to complete their tasks.
I got through the hallway through a sheer force of will alone. Adrenaline pumped through my veins, because I knew this illusion could fail at any moment. Each step tested me, my stamina, and my willpower, and each one was agony. I began to walk faster, feeling the control starting to slip. At the very least, I had to make it out of the castle. I was so close to reaching the entryway staircase. If I could get through to there, then I could blend in well enough to meet up with my other colleagues.
I focused on the task at hand, I couldn’t allow myself to become distracted with what was happening in the throne room. Spenser, I supposed I wasn’t too surprised. He was always one with high ambitions, and though I’d believed he had been a loyal member up until now, I’d always known he would have done anything to achieve his goals. And now, it seemed that he had.
Larke, though? I thought that I had been enough for her, that I had given her a home here. I thought I’d made her happy. I remembered the sad look on her face as she spoke to the King. What was it about this place that drew her back in, time and time again? I gritted my teeth, fighting tooth and nail against myself to keep my magic pushing forward.
I practically ran down the stairs, looking frantically for a place I could hide so that I could reappear and shed this invisibility illusion. Ah! There was a tree with my name on it. It was a large, sweeping willow tree, with delicately long branches that tickled the grass below. I ran to it, concealed myself in its whip like fronds, and sighed as the magic melted off of me. I was visible again.
Once more, and doubly as intense, the fatigue slammed into my consciousness, and I lost my vision for a second. But, my anger, hot and powerful, burned it away, leaving nothing but pure drive for revenge in its wake. I had a goal to accomplish. I would get out of this godforsaken castle, and I would do it, leaving behind the bombs as we had planned. Renn would have to know what happened here, and I fully intended on telling her.
I saw off in the distance my two fellow Naga being apprehended by the very Mages I’d slipped past several minutes ago; they were up against the castle wall’s, apparently caught red handed. I saw the carriage near them, where they had kept the bombs, planting them in nooks and crannies in the stones of the walls. I wondered how far they’d gotten.
It would be a challenge, but I could do this. I steeled myself, ready for a long night.