Chapter Fifty-Two

A Trick and The Truth

The following morning found me groggy, nursing a mild to severe headache (it depended on how quickly I moved) and still a lack of appetite, which for the sake of Fate's variation, no doubt, was cursedly doubled with just a small touch of nausea. It really wasn't fair.

Shouldn't I be able to feel hunger at any point if I am able to feel nausea?

I was lying on the bed yet again staring up at the bottom of yet another canopy, this one frillier than the one from before. The material was a lined pattern of taupe and mauve, separated by thin but not indistinct yellowish lines that faintly sparkled like gold. Maybe it was gold. It reminded me of the materials that hung on Marie Antoinette's canopy as depicted in a particular movie.

Oh, to see a movie again…

My lips melted into a small smile at the thought of normalcy; the first thing I was going to do when I got back would be a simple pleasure. Rent a movie. And then perhaps go to the mall, even if it was never something I explicitly enjoyed. I could surely find joy in it now.

It will be nice to blend in and be blissfully invisible for a change.

As if to this thought, not only did my headache dissipate to a tolerable level, but the now-familiar wave-like pain also faded to that familiar ghost-like sensation. It was at this moment that there was a light knock on the immense doors to my room and I beckoned the person to enter.

Sanara's sure steps grew tentative as she entered, upon seeing me struggling into a seated position. The smile I flashed her was supposed to give assurance and not betray how weak and weary I was actually feeling. Worry furrowed her close-to-perfect features as she tentatively made her way to sit on the edge of my bed.

"You look awfully pale, Cassandra. Does something still pain you?" She placed her hands about my own, the one closest to her, and squeezed encouragingly.

"I'm…not sure. Maybe the stress of this whole situation is finally catching up with me. Maybe it's due to this abrupt switch from agelessness to mortality…I'm feeling like I could sleep all day."

Her hands squeezed mine again, "Worry not, this ball will lift your spirits! And I have a small surprise!" Her shoulders lifted to emphasize her excitement and shifted closer to me, lowering her voice as though about to convey a secret, "You see, it thoroughly bothered me that everyone in my court has been grossly misinformed as to who you truly are," she smiled self-consciously, "so I've happily written down our mutual adventure and have commissioned to have the story put to music. There will be a musician – a minstrel with a guitar-like instrument – performing the composition for everyone." She gave me beaming grin as pride and enthusiasm seeped out of her.

Guitar-like instrument? Sounded like she had researched, but… Oh God, please tell me she's kidding. The earnest expression she wore made it clear that she wasn't the least bit joking. Me, on the other hand, I tried to hide my grimace of discomfort with a contrived expression of delight but I suspected that I failed miserably. The coward that I was, when her excitement visibly faltered a bit, I quickly told her the pain had returned, even though for a fleeting moment I had managed to forget all physical discomforts.

"Oh? That's…" Nice? Generous? "Very thoughtful of you, Sanara…"

Okay, so a rather disturbed part of my brain was curious as to how the song went and how I would be portrayed. But minstrel or no minstrel, the fact was that I would probably end up making an idiot out of myself in front of all that nobility. Knowing me, I'd probably spend half the time trying to adjust the dress to suit comfort and suffer through detestable, incessant overtures of superficiality. Oh joy, lots of men kissing my hand.

The princess seemed placated for the moment, regaining her momentum, "Wonderful! And," she shot up to go to the wall, and as if magically, opened several doors of a white, paneled wardrobe that took up the entire surface, and was made up to look like the wall itself, "just for the occasion I had several of my gown brought here for you to choose from."

At that point, while looking over her shoulder, she must have then caught sight of my striped socks strewn by the foot of the bed – I followed her flowing line of vision that went from the floor near me to the rows upon rows of fancy slippers below the hanging dresses. "You should have enough to choose from, I would wager?"

Her eyes moved to my face and as if in response to seeing something there, a warm smile blossomed on her delicate lips, "You complexion looks better already, see? I knew this was a good idea!"

She then turned back to me fully, and as she approached I could tell she was hiding something behind her back – something she had no doubt nicked from the closet while I had been busying myself with following her eyes before, "And I thought you might need these…" In a kid-like flourish she presented a pair of the most fashionable looking flats I had ever seen. They were dark brown, simple, and yet their shape made them very elegant in an almost classy way.

"I recall you were faced with a dilemma yesterday…so I asked Galen to retrieve a pair of mine from back home. Do you like them? They're yours if you wish."

Oh, there was no way I could say no to that damned ball now, because not only did I feel inclined to do her any favour, but she knew that I liked the shoes. Perhaps she knew I would like them right from the start; slowly, I was coming to terms with the fact that she wasn't as guileless and naïve as she seemed. But I supposed being prisoner to a being a power tended to bring out the worst in most if not all people…

As I idly wondered what attributes of my personality had been altered so far due to my own past captivity, I couldn't help but grin while jumping up and slipping into the shoes, proceeding to openly admire them. Sanara playfully nudged me to approach a full-sized oval mirror behind us at the opposite end of the bed.

My dark circles from last night were gone. The glowing state of my complexion hinted that of an immortal girl, but I was glad to stumble on some mortal skin imperfections…they reminded me of who I was, and the forthcoming future that involved freedom.

A tiny part of me felt a pang of disappointment. This was it. I was free…so then why did all of this feel so…anticlimactic? No fanfare, no triumphant waving of a banner. No pats on the shoulder, even if I hadn't actually defeated any sorcerer; it had all developed this way due to Lorelei's meddling. In a way, I had her greed to thank for the outcome of things.

At least you get a minstrel song, said a tiny voice in my head, what more do you want?

It then struck to me that Sanara would outlive me. So would Galen. Would Ersades age, then? Or would he remain ageless, even if without his powers? Lorelei had said human, which had to mean he was really no different then, than I. How strange it seemed…

And who would have thought that a princess could be so thoughtful?

"If you like them, you can have them – to keep." And generous. Weren't princesses supposed to be spoiled and ungrateful? That was the case in most tales, anyway.

When I looked at her, she was smiling warmly yet there was a hint of something sad, even if subtly so. We were caught in a moment – one that I wanted to digest and pass; I turned to her, taking her hands. "What's the matter, Sanara?"

"I…"

My eyebrows lifted to cue her to elaborate.

"It…has occurred to me…that come a few short days from now, you will be gone. And…"

And I will outlive you, I knew it's what she wanted to say, but didn't. She may not have appreciated my imprisoned state, but now I realized that it was somewhat handy for her to have had girl-company for an eternity. And that would no longer be the case.

"Well that settles it. We are going to this…ball. And…I won't hold back from having fun." I smirked, squeezing her palms. She sighed solemnly, slowly giving into an encroaching smile that visibly invaded her increasingly sullen mood.

Somehow this new-found point of view put a fresh spin on all things including the usual menial, mindless task of picking a gown, debating what style of hair would suit it best and what shape the shoe's toe and heel should be to match. I had rarely paid attention to any of these things way back before my clothes were picked for me. But now, being taught what was fashionable and elegant to this world, I came to realization that Ersades' taste was stellar. This realization took me along very same vein of thoughts as his gardens. Good taste in clothes. Handy with flowers. Hm…

If it weren't for his forceful, controlling mannerisms, and psychotic tendencies to blackmail, he'd be the perfect man…being…or whatever…My brain did a double take and I gave a prolonged blink at my reflection, shaking my head. Oh no, Cass, don't you dare even go down that path. Not even as a seed born from humour.

In the end, the princess went with a flowing dress of delicately shimmering silver, with long bell-like sleeves. And I acceded to her choice for me – a breezy pastel yellow gown with a rounded neckline that allowed for just the right amount of skin, the sleeves made of what appeared to be a combination of chiffon and a silk underlay.

Between the two of us in the mirror, I could tell who was the royal hostess or guest of honour versus the at-first-anonymous companion, and was sure this obvious contrast was with purpose. This ball was for the princess – I was merely an observer; a witness to her revealing to her court, among a few things, the truth behind the infamous, self-seeking Cassandra, the lover of the evil being who captured their princess. And fortunately, she would (at first unfold and then) finish the story before doing her big reveal – as to the true identity of her mysterious comrade.

I would do it because a time limit had once again been allotted to me. And because the girl standing near, grinning at me was generous, and kind-hearted…and chances stood that I would never see her again after I returned home. Everything had a price, whichever way it went.

And then, when I was actually beginning to get excited about the ball affair, and thought things would be splendid, another nasty, cursed wave of pain ploughed over me, causing my knees to buckle. I heard Sanara approach more that saw her, the material of her dress swishing against itself as she rushed to crouch nearby. I opened my mouth to tell her I was fine, only managing to mumble incoherently. Then, like the end of a movie, everything faded to black…except without the credits to follow. No. I was definitely not fine.

It was a distant hum at first, which grew slightly in volume and clarity, to become something recognizable – a male voice. Slightly familiar in the colouring of its tone, I knew it was Galen even before opening my eyes to be sure.

Through a small crack in my eyelids, I saw that he and Sanara were standing on either side of me; I lay on the bed, having been placed there at some point while unconscious, I presumed. I wondered how long had passed since it all faded into what I could only associated with a sort of oblivion.

"…what I suspect isn't possible," Galen whispered from his spot on my left. Curiosity made me peer to my right, wondering exactly what they were discussing.

"One moment she was fine, her palour normal, and the next, she lay unconscious, her face as pale as snow." I heard Sanara's small voice, her tone concerned, all the while puzzled.

A pause.

"There is something not quite right about her energy, Sanara. What did she tell you?"

Now this was getting just a tad annoying. Seeing as I was awake, it felt just a bit irksome being discussed as though I wasn't in the room.

"I'm awake, I'm awake…" I grumbled, clumsily trying to sit up, but failing when my elbows refused to hold up the weight. Simultaneously, both heads snapped in attention to me, the gazes startled and anxious. Galen hesitated at a loss for what to do where Sanara made contact, wrapping a supporting arm around my shoulders to prop me against an oversized, plush pillow. It was the very pillow I had been eyeing with criticism at some earlier point of time; I now mentally apologized to it.

Sanara's eyes flew from between her beloved's face and my own, as if trying to build a bridge between our thoughts. I wondered how much more than discomfort was stopping her from elaborating on what had unfolded between my former captor-slash-husband and me. How much did Galen need to know about that night? And did I really need to disclose personal details for him to puzzle out what was happening to me? God, I hoped not.

"I need to confirm my suspicions." Galen's voice was gruff, and he considered me before pursing his lips. Then he swiftly swept his dark red cloak to one side and sat gingerly with his hands in the air, ready to gesticulate. "There is a strange sort of…buzzing is the only way I can describe it, coming from you. To be sure of my theory, I need to formulate an assessment, if you would be willing?"

To this question, I looked at Sanara who presented me with an encouraging smile. I nodded, swallowing with difficulty. To my acquiescence, I thought I saw them give one another the subtlest of nods.

"I'm truly sorry, Cassandra…but Galen and I have discussed this at length. And…the only way to get to the bottom of this is to take you back."

My stomach plummeted to my knees.

"What?" The word tumbled out of my mouth, accompanied by a subtle sort of burning sensation behind my eyes. Sanara's eyes jumped to Galen instantly.

"We cannot take responsibility for the outcome of these effects…" Galen continued, and eyed me as if wary of my reaction.

I felt betrayed. Abandoned. Utterly idiotic for putting any trust in this princess and her beloved sorcerer. Why did I think, for a second, that she would have the slightest care for me? In turn, physically I felt something quite new and invigorating; so much so that I was able to sit upright as if possessed by a strength that felt right.

"How dare you?" I was fuming, my fists in such tight balls that my knuckles turned white. Again I felt a blaze of something heated behind my retinas. Just like when I had that mysterious courage to confront Lorelei. Just the same, I felt my cheeks flush from indignation.

"Hm, interesting," hummed Galen, eyeing me analytically, a small smile threatening to spread on his perfect lips.

Sanara pursed her own lips now, but it seemed to be in order to stifle a smile.

"Well that proves it." Before I could inquire as to what he was talking about, he elaborated, evidently reading the expression on my face, which no doubt made my cluelessness plain. He gave a quick glance at his beloved princess before turning back to me with a slightly apologetic look.

He gave a heavy, pondering sigh, "Somehow, bits of magical powers, in fragmented form, have found their way into your body. I can only guess how this happened, but the outcome is becoming a hazard for your mortal vessel, I'm afraid."

No you're not. They were just empty words. But somehow I knew this was huge.

What an odd way to say it. So reservedly, so articulately. So like Ersades yet so utterly different. Regardless of his words, he didn't sound afraid. If anything, he seemed amused at how gullible I was. When I realized the two had played me to get a reaction, I was too stunned to be offended.

Sanara's hand gently came to rest on my shoulder and she smiled at me consolingly.

"It was a low thing to do, but we had to see," Sanara explained, and I caught her hand trembling ever so slightly.

"See…?" I echoed dumbly, looking between the two, still not quite understanding what just happened.

"Your reaction. Your eyes light up…literally. The magic in you is triggered by extreme emotion." The princess continued carefully. She was now done pretending, I could tell.

Could they be referring to the heat I felt behind my eyes when I was angry? It wasn't just a coincidence; I felt it when faced with Lorelei and again now, when I was made to believe that I was being betrayed.

"The pain—"

"—Is being caused by the powers that diverged from their host and into your cells," Galen supplied, "we know it's getting worse."

With uncertainty, I gave Sanara a glance askance. As a heavy silence followed, again I swallowed, but this time from hopeful relief, "But you're still not going to take me back to Ersades?"

Galen opened his mouth as if to prepare to say something difficult but Sanara beat hi to it, "it is your well-being we are considering so it's not an option we've completely out-ruled." Galen's mouth shut just as Sanara's hand gave my shoulder a squeeze, "but Galen will find all options."

From the way my head was turned, my eyes caught sight of my reflection in the mirror. I didn't like how perfect and flawless the girl gazing back at me appeared to be.