“Ah, just who I was looking for,” Daneel’s taunting voice sounded behind me, freezing me in place.
I turned to face him. “To what do I owe the pleasure.”
He extended his arm for me, which I took with slight hesitation. “Glad you asked. There are some things I’d like to discuss with you. I hope you’re not too busy with your performance?”
Disdain dripped from his tongue like poison as he stared down at me. “I’m afraid I’m not going to perform tonight. I don’t possess much musical talent,” I said through gritted teeth.
His self-satisfied smile grew while his gaze returned to look ahead. “Pity. I would have loved seeing you play, though I suppose we can’t afford to have two people send home tonight.”
I stopped, pulling Daneel to a halt with me. “What?”
“Haven’t you heard?” He raised his brow, a glint in his eyes that did not sit right with me. “Lian and I decided to eliminate Morana tonight. She’s been very inactive with most activities, and personally, I would have sent her home earlier, but Lian insisted on getting rid of the annoying ones first.”
It wasn’t unreasonable, but there had to be more to it. “Why are you telling me this?”
His smile widened into a grin. “A little bird told me you two have been talking about a way to get out of the Crest Sealing, and although that is to no relevance, I enjoy taking things from you that bring hope. It sets your features in such beautiful despair.”
“Why is it irrelevant?” I asked, glaring.
Waving his free hand, he pulled me with him as we continued to walk. “The Sealing never held any importance. The deal we made was so petty and easily made unremarkable, other High Landers would have laughed at the pathetic attempt.” Daneel chuckled to himself. “Did you really think I would make a Crest Sealing with a Human if my life truly depended on it?”
I clenched my firsts. “Then why make it in the first place?” I hissed through gritted teeth.
“You think too highly of yourself.” He laughed, but the humor was lost on me. “Perhaps that is partly my fault for lying to you. I was never interested in your plan, nor did I think my brother wouldn’t fall madly in love with you even if you put in no effort. Though, It really is amusing seeing you fighting for something that will never be. The passion, the fire, the fight you had in you when you first stepped foot in the palace, it all has been snuffed out within a single week, and I take pride in being part of the reason.” His shoulders shook as he continued to laugh. “And truthfully? The Sealing was never part of the plan. I came up with it on the spot. The look on your face was priceless, just as it is now.”
Abruptly, he turned to face me, snatching my hand before it could fall back to my side and pulling me to him. The once so beautiful piercing blue of his eyes now faded into ugly patronizing cruelty. Nothing about him seemed like an elegant Fae prince. All I saw were the stories my father used to tell me of the darker times that destroyed the Human kingdoms.
I pressed my lips into a thin line as he reached up with one hand to trace the side of my face, only to stop to grab my chin and jerk it to his. “I have to admit you have been the most enjoyable puppet I had the pleasure of playing with.”
“I’d like to say you were just as enjoyable,” I said, keeping my tone leveled, “but that would be a lie. You bored me quite a bit.”
His fingers tightened ever so slightly around my chin before letting go. Stepping back, a knowing grin spread across his face that unsettled me. “Then let me make things a bit more interesting for you.”
Biting my tongue, I stepped back, though his grip on my chin remained. “I have somewhere I need to be.”
“I suppose you do,” he said. “Pity you won’t be able to make it.” His eyes lifted to something behind me, causing his grin to turn wicked. “Princess Morana, wouldn’t you like to join us on our way to the dining hall?”
“It would be my pleasure,” Morana replied, her voice colder than usual. “Could you please release my dear friend Liliya? She seems uncomfortable.”
Daneel did as he was told, but the pressure remained on my skin long after. I turned to Morana, nodding as our gaze met, a silent question in her eyes.
“Shall we?” I asked, gesturing in the direction of the hall.
The table had been empty when we arrived. It was a bit too early. The others wouldn’t join us for another half an hour. Although I wished to speak with Morana, I couldn’t say too much. Neither could she. Daneel had seated himself at the head of our end of the table. He lounged comfortably in his chair, watching us closely, waiting.
The tension that filled the air could be cut with a knife, though I’d have stabbed Daneel with it. The smugness that seemed to have taken over his entire being was enough for Morana to plan his murder as well. She did not do well with arrogance.
“Don’t let my presence stop you from talking,” Daneel said, his voice echoing in the empty room. “Liliya mentioned you had some things to discuss. Go on.”
“Have you heard Jelena play?” I asked Morana. “She’s incredible.”
She nodded. “I’ve heard a bit when I passed her room.”
“Which part did you hear?” I asked, knowing it wasn’t Jelena we were discussing anymore. “The beginning, middle or end?”
“I’m afraid I only heard the end.” She sat back in her chair, faking a sigh. “Too bad I could walk by earlier. What was your favorite part?”
I felt Daneel’s gaze on me, unsure if he was aware of what we meant. “I’d say the middle. It was very. . .intriguing and heart-felt.”
“I see,” Morana mumbled, looking down. “Do you think she will win?”
“Of course.” I glanced at the door, then back at Morana. “With her talent, Parris might as well not perform at all.”
Before Morana could reply, Daneel spoke up. “You think Jelena will win Lian’s heart with this performance?”
“I believe there is a chance,” I said, meeting his gaze. “She is gorgeous and talented beyond comparison. Not to mention her kindness and optimism. It all shines through.”
“She has won before, you think she’ll win again?”
“Last time we helped her,” Morana cut in. “This time she will win on her own accord. Saying she is the victor twice in a row would be a lie, seeing as Liliya and I also won. We simply decided Jelena was to receive the prize.”
“True enough.” Daneel nodded, seemingly bored by her answer. “But with all that has happened, does it not make any of you jealous?”
I lifted my chin. “I don’t see why you would think that. The competition is fair and in the end it all depends on who the princes favor. Hating on one another doesn’t get us anywhere, it simply shows our bad side.”
“But didn’t you and my brother become rather close?” Raising his brow, his smile returned. “Doesn’t the thought of your dear friend spending an evening, maybe even a night, with him, evoke any of that bad side of yours?”
I clenched my fists under the table. It did, but I trusted Lian. And in all honesty, I did not possess any claim over Lian. If he were to choose Jelena over me in the end, I couldn’t blame him for it. Neither could I blame Jelena. It was their choice and I had no say in it.
“Perhaps,” I said. “But that does not mean I am to act on it.”
“There you are!” Jelena’s voice came from the doorway. “I wanted to walk with you to dinner, but it seems I was a bit late to the party.”
She smiled as she approached the table, sitting down at her usual seat next to me. If she was confused about Daneel being here as well, she did not show it. Though, I supposed she assumed it was because he had taken a liking to me. Which was true, in a way, but not the way she imagined it to be.
Leaning forward, Daneel latched his attention on Jelena. “I heard you and Parris were the only ones to perform tonight.”
“That’s right, my Prince,” she said, her voice polite. Jelena and Daneel hadn’t interacted much, which wasn’t too surprising since she preferred Lian, but it always caught me a bit off guard how formal she was towards him. Or rather, how informal I was.
“A real shame, don’t you think?”
Jelena nodded. “Yes, although I do understand. With everything that has happened to Liliya, it isn’t too unreasonable for her to want to take it easy. And it isn’t in Morana’s culture that she should be able to play an instrument of any kind.” Pausing for a second, she seemed to choose her next words carefully. “In all honesty, Your Majesty, I think this contest is rather unfair. The previous one was reasonable since in every culture there are some delicacies that others do not have, and although assuming we as females should be able to make anything with a little help of magic does not sit right with me, it was fair enough. Playing an instrument is a skill one acquires if they have an interest, it shouldn’t be a requirement on whether someone is fit to be a wife or not.”
I blinked at Jelena, a smile spreading across my lips. Even Daneel had the audacity to look taken aback. She still seemed to surprise me with how bold she could be.
Daneel straightened in his seat, no longer looking like the prince that had the world wrapped around his finger. “This tradition between all the kingdoms is old, I can agree on that. I can bring your opinion on the matter to my father’s attention if you wish. That way he can bring it up at the next meeting between kings and queens.”
Jelena’s face lit up. “That would be very much appreciated, thank you, Your Majesty.”
Waving it off, Daneel looked up as Lian entered, Parris not too far behind him. “Brother, finally, let’s begin.”
Lian simply nodded as he took his seat, not looking too thrilled to be in the company of the Fairy. However, Parris wasn’t looking much like herself. She quietly sat, making sure to meet no ones gaze as she started at her plate. Her wings were twitching in a nervous manner as she bit her lip, her usual scowl or sneer no where to be seen. Under her eyes were dark bags, as if she hadn’t been able to sleep all week.
Frowning slightly, I looked away. She had been acting strangely ever since I first went to Lian’s room and passed out. Knowing what I know now, I almost pitied her, seeing as she couldn’t handle the responsibility of whatever Daneel had instructed her to do. It couldn’t be anything good, and she agreed to it herself, but part of me knew she didn’t deserve this much stress.
“Well then,” Daneel said, standing from his chair and clapping his hands. “Princess Jelena, would you like to start?”
Jelena bowed her head. “With pleasure.”