“Oh my god!” Ember hissed, after I’d pulled her and Nova into my room, whispering about what I’d heard. I nodded adamantly, pacing the floor.
“I know, I know!” My mind feels like it’s going to overflow. “Why do people hide things from us? Have we not proven ourselves?” I demanded, punching one of my fists into my palm. Deep in my core I can feel my energy start to heat up, frustrated at what I’d overheard.
“Because,” Nova said, clapping her hands together and pretending to swoon, batting her eyes wildly. “We are just little girls who needn’t worry ourselves with big man problems,” I dryly laughed at that and rolled my eyes.
“They had no issue with us being little girls when they picked us to fight crime.” I said sarcastically, flopping down onto my bed.
“What are they hiding from us?” Ember wondered aloud. None of us know how to respond to that, all of us too scorned to trust anyone. The beautiful scenery and kind welcome didn’t exactly pull the wool over my eyes, but it was still shocking to hear.
“Who do we even trust?” I asked, feeling like everyone had lied to me at least once.
Nova was the first to break the heavy silence, “each other.”
“Red is definitely your color, ma’am.” Phoebe whispered at me, fluffing my gown some more. My heart races as I look in the mirror, I don’t look like myself.
The mermaid had put me in a red ball gown, with red lace off the shoulder straps, and a sweetheart neckline. The torso is lace and tight, flowing down in red applique layers. The gown is full, and I’m worried about tripping in it.
After hearing the way King Erran spoke of me, of my friends, of his own son, I considered skipping. Until I decided that I have an upper hand here, he doesn’t know I’m aware of his secrecy; I can play his game and stand on an upper ground. I just have to play my cards right.
Phoebe had managed to curl my hair with a gel and some curlers, they fell softly to my bare shoulders, last she placed a gold wire flower crown on my head.
“Thank you, Phoebe.” I say, trying to sound as genuine as possible.
“I’ll get you your shoes, and then you can go to the dance. They all anxiously await your arrival.” She smiles at me, and I wonder if she’s aware of the going ons. I took a sip of the coffee she had given me, and looked at the shoes she extended to me. Um, no.
At least five inches, the strappy black heels look like the death of me. “Respectfully, Phoebe, I’ve never even worn heels? I don’t think I should start with those.” She ponders a moment, I push. “Could I please wear my converse? I’ve worn the dresses, I let you powder and paint my face, please let me wear my shoes.”
Phoebe smiled small and walked from the room, peeking back at the last minute. “I didn’t see anything... enjoy the dance Miss Astra, you do look gorgeous.” I smiled at her as she left, and once she was gone I slipped on my converse and took one last long look. In a small gold purse I put the souls, I clamped it shut and held it tightly.
“You can do it…” I whispered to my pampered reflection, biting a lip Phoebe had painted red. Last week I was trapped in a cell, and was tortured to near death; a ball I can handle. I took the last sip of the coffee, let the caffeine hit my chest, before grabbing the front of my dress and beginning the walk to the ballroom.
Ember and Nova weren’t with me, as much as I wished they were here with me, Phoebe said we all needed to make appearances one by one. So everyone could gawk at us, I presume.
I wasn’t one hundred percent sure where to go, but I trailed behind another woman in a gown, hoping she’d lead me to where I needed to go. She led me to a big golden door, where two men opened it and announced her name as she walked in. Oh gosh, there really is no slipping in there unnoticed.
I took a last breath, prepared my act, and walked up to the men.
“Good evening,” I said politely, and they bowed.
“Name, miss?” I looked up at the men who didn’t even look back at me. Rude.
“Astra, Astra Barlowe.” Then they finally looked down, their whole demeanor changing.
“Oh, uh, yes. Right this way, Miss Barlowe.” I nodded, and they swung the doors open for me. “Welcoming, Miss Astra Barlowe!” I swear on everything that everyone stopped talking and looked at me. The room is large, with tall golden ceilings with painted angels. Tables for fine dining reside on the sides, the center is a large dance floor, and at the head was the king. I locked eyes with him, smiled, and walked as poised as I could into the room.
Everyone clapped, polite applause that wasn’t too loud, but demeaning all the same. They hadn’t clapped for the other woman, they clapped for me because I’d done what they wanted; even though I almost died. The room is full of residents of the Somnium Realm, each of them with tan skin, pointed ears, and extravagant clothing.
“Good evening, Miss Astra.” A man said to me, reaching for my hand, I shook it with a warm smile and pushed forward. I just want to get this over with, to return the souls so they can pass on. I clutch my purse of souls, walking calmly and proudly to the head of the room. He wants me to play the part of the successful, boastful, hero? I’ll do that.
As I walk people part for me like waves, not even daring to whisper as I pass. I nod at people, smiling politely.
“I have a gift for you, King Erran.” I called, loudly enough for the whole audience to hear, once I reached the head of the room. The king beamed at me, buying into my act, and stood graciously. Slowly, I unclipped my purse and pulled out the orb of compressed souls, holding them carefully on the tips of my fingers and holding it out to him.
“What do you have for us today, my lady?” My blood boils, but I don’t let it show as I smile a full tooth smile, I even throw in a curtsey. Look at him, flaunting it about. Disgusting.
“The souls of one thousand innocents, sir.” Everyone around me gasps, the whispering commencing. I’d done it, they said. She succeeded, they said. The king smiled at me, bowed, and reached for the souls. His hand, cold and clammy, takes the souls from me. The moment they are gone I want to reach and take them back, I don’t trust him enough to know he’ll treat them right. I needed a new place to go, to seem like I know what I’m doing.
My goal was the drink table, I definitely needed something in my system for this. Was there a legal drinking age in the Somnium Realm? I don’t care.
“The Somnium Realm thanks you, for bringing our loved ones home. Tonight, we celebrate your gift to us!” King Erran yelled, and everyone commenced in more clapping, he smiled as he sat. I smile back at him through the sickness that fills my gut, I give him one last curtsy before walking into the crowd.
I shake about thirty hands before I actually get to the waiter holding the tray of sparkling champagne, I smile at him with the smile that’s permanently glued to my face, and take a flute. Sipping, I try to make it too obvious as I eye everyone at the party.
Everyone here gives me the side eye, trying to have some dignity with the staring. I can’t blame them entirely, they’ve been waiting for my arrival for most of their lives. The king raised a chalice and smiled at me when he noticed me looking, I raised my flute and averted my eyes.
An orchestra somewhere plays low classical music, a few people dance in a swirl of lace and silk, but not too many. It was while I was watching the dancers, fluid and elegant, that the doors opened again.
“Welcoming, Miss Ember Conner!” People quieted once more, as the stunning woman walked into the room. Ember took even my breath away. She wears a floor length sparkling black gown, strapless and very low cut. As she entered the room, eyeing us all under thick dark lashes, I noticed the long leg slit going up to her thigh, revealing her black boots under the gown.
I raised a hand so she’d notice me, and as she did her dark painted lips smiled. Nobody dared breathe as she passed them, her pale skin glowing in the room. With a cream colored hand she swooped all of her midnight dark curls over her left shoulder, winking at the man she walked by. I’m surprised he didn’t faint.
“You nearly made that man wet himself,” I whispered to her as she reached me, and only raised a coy eyebrow and took a flute of her own.
“Mm, red is your color.” Ember said, eyeing me over the rim of her glass.
“Why did I get stuck in this big poofy thing, but yours is just plain sexy.” I whined, looking down at all my ruffles.
“They’re playing to our strengths. You’re the big power, I’m your sexy side kick.” I rolled my eyes, and she laughed.
“Erm, Miss Ember?” We turned, it was Ashton. He wore a white suit with a black tie, his sword at his waist, it looked like he may have even gelled his hair.
“Yes, soldier?” She had lowered her voice to a sultry whisper, his eyes widened as he took her in.
“I was going to ask for a dance?” He stuttered, looking between the two of us. Ember looked at me, mouthed the word ‘distraction’, before turning back to him smiling.
“I’d love to,” she put her drink down and rested her hand in his. Together they made their way to the dance floor, he grabbed her waist gently, and from here I see her press herself to him more firmly.
In a whirl of black sparkles, and dark hair, Ember elegantly demands the space of the dance floor. Indeed, people stop to watch her and Ashton dance, not quite a waltz but slow and graceful all the same.
He looks at her with joy, and she looks up at him in a lustful way, I wonder what will come of that.
“I snuck in the window.” Nova whispered from behind me, and I nearly spilled the remainder of my drink as I flinched. “I didn’t want everyone to stare at me. I saw you deliver your ‘gift’,” her cat eyes gleamed with evil joy. “I thought maybe you were going to chuck it at his face.” I smiled at the image of that.
“He’s certainly full of himself, isn’t he?” I whispered back, and she giggled as we watched him clap along to the slow intensifying beat. As the song met its crescendo Ashton twirled her quickly, her midnight gown swirling out widely, before pulling her to his chest and dipping her low to the ground.
People politely clapped, as she stood back up and fixed her now wild curls. “Well, they’re hot.” Nova muttered, and I could only nod in my agreement.
“Miss Nova? A dance?” We both turned to see River, his cheeks fire red as he extended a hand for her. I finally took in Nova’s appearance, she wore a silver long sleeve gown, with her matching silver curls piled atop her head. No shoes, of course. I smiled at that, as Nova took his hand and they took their turn at the dance floor. I could hear the distasteful mutters at her shoeless attire, but that’s just Nova.
I look around some more, my heart stopping suddenly. There, across the room, a boy with beautiful cold eyes looks at me. His dark hair falls onto his pale forehead, his lips pull back into an arrogant grin. My heart leapt into my throat, pounding with shock and pure excitement.
It’s him, he’s here. I’m not dreaming, and Beckett has come to me. He had ditched his black attire for a gray tux with a blue tie, he looks amazing. Grinning ear to ear I put down my empty glass and clutch at my dress, starting towards him as fast as I can in this full crowd. How did he escape? How did he find me? All I care about right now is getting to him.
I weave my way through the crowd, keeping my eyes trained on his content face. It feels like years before I’m close to him, “oh I’m sorry!” I say, after bumping into a woman chatting it up. She tells me it’s alright, and with a skipping heart I look back up to Beckett. My heart, and my face, drop.
“Well don’t look so happy to see me,” Theodore joked with me, at the sight of my frown, but he’s smiling down at me. What? No, I saw Beckett. Except, now it’s the golden boy wearing the gray tux in front of me. I shake my head, was the champagne affecting me this much? My cheeks burn at how I’d run to Beckett, and how disappointed I was that it wasn’t him.
Am I losing my mind? I try to find my voice, my eye burn a bit at my broken heart, I’d really hoped it was Beckett.
“I’ve been looking forward to seeing you since our walk earlier.” I lied, finding my footing once more. Theo beams at that, it makes my chest hurt a bit. He seems to be a genuinely nice guy, but he’s being played by his dad. I push all my disappointment down, it’s not his fault. I’m not even sure what happened, why I saw Beckett.
“Well, would the guest of honor like to dance?” I smiled sulterly, or at least I hope I do, and I took his cold hand. We made our way to the dance floor where Nova and Ember both dance with their dates. The guests, as well as the king, don’t pretend to not stare as the song begins, and the six of us begin a slow dance.
I feel a disconnect as we begin, my feet follow the steps Beckett taught me, I feel a hand on my back where he had held me, but I look up and I don’t see Beckett.
Theodore smiles at me, a golden lock falling across his cheek as he gracefully pulls me and spins me, I force a smile back. It’s muscle memory that gets me through the dance, as well as Theodore taking the lead. When he picks me up and spins me, the way my friend had in the library, I look across the room and lock eyes with the king.
He smiles and twirls a finger on the arm of his chair, he feels as though everything is going according to plan. I remember then that I’m supposed to be putting on a show, so as my feet touch the floor once more I rest a hand on his cheek instead of his shoulder.
“You’re quite the dancer,” I whispered to him as I followed his steps.
“It’s easy, when you have a stunning dance partner.” He responds automatically, I pretend to be bashful, swatting his shoulder gently.
“Well, aren’t you a flatterer?” I responded as the dance came to its end and a respectful clap began once more. Theodore bowed, as did River and Ashton. Such good little distractions.
“My lady? A gift from the king.” A server said, handing me a flute of even more sparkling champagne. Internally, I groan and revolt against it. What’s he trying to do? Intoxicate me so I don’t ask questions? But I thank him and take the flute, sipping on it to prove my compliance, and let Theo guide me gently by my lower back.
“Are you enjoying your visit here, Astra?” Theo asked when he felt like we were out of earshot. I nodded, deciding to just down the rest of my drink.
“You’ve made it worth the trip,” I fibbed, biting a lip gently. When he looked back at me with his mossy eyes I felt my heart flip, and a heat build in my gut.
“Do you want to get out of here?” He murmured, his voice husky near my ear. I nodded, genuinely wanting to. We left the room without so much as a glance back at our friends, the air being less stuffy in the hall.
Walking down the hall we were silent for a while, I reached and held his bicep.
“I’m sorry my father is a bit of a, let’s say, showman?” That’s an understatement, I laugh a bit loudly.
“Is he always like that?” I prodded, wondering if it’s just with me. Theo nodded and I laughed again. My head feels a bit dizzy, only two flute’s and I’m buzzed? “How strong are your drinks here?” I asked, my words slurring a bit. A tingling covers my body, and I stop walking to try to calm my sudden racing heart.
“Are you ok? Astra?” Theo said, but my head started swimming and I wasn’t able to hear him all that well. I try to shake my head, as words fail me, but I feel myself begin to sway. His eyes are wide with worry and he pushes hair off my face and cups my cheeks, trying to talk to me.
“What were in those drinks?” I slurred, before feeling my legs give out from under me. The last thing I am aware of is Theo scooping me up to his chest, and his muffled voice yelling for help.