A/N: I am obviously a terrible updater. I am sorry.
Two days later, Cassara was confined to her room on Arita's orders. She'd caught a cold somehow, perhaps the same thing Arita had had, and Arita refused to let her wander the castle until she felt better.
Cassara hated it all; she was forced to eat disgusting concoctions Arita swore had magical healing properties (though Cassara had a sneaking suspicious they were chicken soup with far too much salt added) and she wasn't even allowed to go to the library to find something else good to read. When she'd fetched the book for Arita, she'd also taken a selection for herself. Unfortunately, she'd finished them all already, except for a novel fabricating a lurid romance between the assassin Kara Lamoran and the emperor she had killed. Kara had been kept in the Citadel a hundred years before—she was the only person who had ever escaped from the Citadel, and she'd managed to do it twice. Around the historical facts of her escape, assassination of the Emperor, recapture and the slaves' revolt she'd led in the quarries, second escape, and bloody death—being torn to pieces by hellhounds certainly wasn't a pleasant way to die, Cassara was sure—there was a second story, about how Kara and the Emperor had been in love. It was completely fabricated, of course, but it looked interesting nonetheless.
The only problem was that she had hidden it beneath her mattress, wanting to read it at a time when she could do so without the distraction of people constantly popping in and out of her room.
Even Davien stuck his head in a few times, probably on Arita's orders. When he learned of her book dilemma, he offered to pick something out of the library for her. When Cassara agreed to let him, he came back with a stack of books about the proper make of swords and how to efficiently duel a knight. Not wanting to hurt his feelings, Cassara sent the books to join the one about Kara Lamoran, and pulled one out whenever she heard Davien coming—the clattering of the sword at his hip was more than enough warning for her.
Alex was the only one who didn't seem at least sympathetic toward her—well, the only one except Cassara herself. He seemed more concerned with whatever had him locked up in the library day after day, though Cassara only knew of this second-hand from Arita, Davien, and the servants. She was grateful that he had that research project, whatever it was. It meant she didn't have to risk any more awkward conversations with him.
Cassara was sitting on the windowsill of the Moon Room one day, looking down to the bottom of the ravine beside the Citadel where Mila had leaped to her death, when a servant came in. It was a young woman—Cassara remembered she was called Natalie—carrying a tray of uninviting-looking food and a bottle of the rancid tonic Arita had seen fit to prescribe. Far from making her feel better, it only made her want to wash her mouth out with soap.
"Lady Salentai says it's time for your lunch and medicine," Natalie said, putting the tray down on a trestle table. She picked up the tonic and a spoon, holding them out to Cassara.
"Ugh. No, thank you. I'm fine without it," Cassara said, suppressing a shudder at the thought of swallowing the vile stuff.
"But miss, it's supposed to make you better."
"Well, I've been taking it for days, and it hasn't done anything yet, so I won't be taking anymore."
"Lady Salentai said you'd say that. She also said that, if you did, to say that she knows a man who's an expert on leeches, and she would be more than happy to call him."
"That won't happen. She wouldn't call for a specialist to come all the way to the Citadel for me. And besides, I'm perfectly fine." Right on cue, she sneezed twice. "Really," she added. "It's just a case of the sniffles."
"She said you'd say that, too, and if you did, to say…" Natalie frowned, then nodded. "Yes. She said to say that if you don't want to take your medicine, she's going to be forced to call in a proper healer, and that she won't even have to send for one, because there is already one in residence. She is sure that Prince Alexandre would be more than happy to offer his services. She also said that if you refused to take your medicine, I should send for him." Natalie put the tonic and spoon back on the tray and moved for the door.
Cassara almost tripped over herself scrambling to the table. "Never mind," she babbled. "I'm sure a bit of medicine would do me a world of good." She poured herself a full spoon of tonic and, squeezing her nose so as not to taste the stuff, swallowed it. She was morbidly depressed to find that, even with her nose plugged, the tonic tasted just as bad as it had before
Well after midnight, Cassara poked her head out of her room and looked around, making sure Arita wasn't anywhere nearby before she slid out of the room. She paused to look back at her bed, admiring the job she'd done stuffing it with pillows so that it looked like she was still there. Gathering all those pillows had taken an entire afternoon's work of sneaking out of her room, filching them from other rooms, and smuggling them back to her own room before anyone noticed. Of course, the lumpy form wouldn't fool anyone who actually walked into the room, but to a snooping Arita who might just glance through the doorway, it would probably do the trick and allow Cassara a short period of freedom.
The time of night meant the corridors were dark, so dark that she could barely see her hand in front of her face. There were no torches in the brackets and the light globes had been long extinguished. She considered reaching for one to light, but hesitated before her fingers could brush its crystalline surface; she didn't want to risk waking anyone with the glow.
She felt her way down the hall until she came across a table; she'd known it was there, she'd made sure to mark it earlier in the day. It was just a small table, up against one wall, adorned with a bowl of fruit for decoration. However, on either side of the bowl of fruit was a candlestick with a real candle, and Cassara had hid one of the fire sticks from her room behind the fruit bowl. Now, operating by touch, she lit one of the candles. Guided by its flickering glow and going at a sedate pace so it wouldn't flicker out, she padded on down the hallway.
Her feet went numb from contact with the cold stone floors, even through her stockings, and she wished someone had had the foresight to order rugs for such a cold castle. She regretted not bringing her boots with her—she hadn't wanted to put them on in her room because she would have made too much noise going down the hallway, and might have awoken Arita.
In addition to the darkness, the silence was stifling. She had to suppress an urge to cough, sneeze, do something to break it. She manged, barely, and crept down the stairs to the entryway of the castle, then taking the hallway to her left, where the library was. She held out her hand before her as she walked, looking for the carved wooden doors, and winced as she realized the candle's glow barely extended to her fingertips. With a quiet sigh, she blew the flame out—it was more trouble than it was worth.
She fumbled through the darkness until she felt the carved doors before her. In fact, she ran into them hard enough to bark her knuckles on the uneven surface, and she bit her lip until it bled to stop from crying out in pain. Swearing silently, she pulled one door open and slipped into the musty-smelling chamber of the library.
To her surprise, a torch was lit there—odd, because it could so easily set fire to so many valuable manuscripts. But it was in a bracket some distance away from any shelves, and so she let it be, going on through the maze of books to the reading tables in the center of the room. She'd seen several promising books there before, along with blank parchment and sticks of charcoal which seemed to be free for the taking, and she was considering working on her rather awful drawing abilities.
A few stones glowed about the room, giving off the halos of light by which she was navigating, which was nothing unusual. But when she turned and saw a candle perched on a table, she suddenly realized that she might not be alone. She froze, straining for a sound or sight, but there was nothing. She sagged in relief and went to the table where the candle was, intending to blow it out. Before she could do so, her eye fell on the mess of papers covering the table.
They were notes. Pages and pages of history notes, blueprints for various parts of the Citadel, and a huge, dusty book open to a page about Kara Lamoran. That didn't entirely surprise Cassara; given Kara's story, she was bound to be a topic of interest here at the Citadel. Cassara picked up one of the sheets of notes, squinting at it in the candle's flickering light. The handwriting was atrocious; she could only pick out a word here and there, and they weren't enough to put together even an idea of what was being researched. She shrugged, replaced the paper, and took a book and scroll from the table. Hopefully they wouldn't be missed and would yield some useful information about the Citadel, information she could use to her advantage.
She blew out the candle and began to wind her way back to the door, pausing only briefly to collect a few mystery novels off another table. She was halfway to the exit when she passed an overstuffed armchair and went sprawling as her foot connected with something that shouldn't have been there.
She yelled in surprise, but the sound was sucked up into the library's silencing spells, as was the stream of curses that followed. She'd forgotten about the spells, which would have concealed any aural cues of anyone else being in the library, and she hadn't been able to see, either. And there was definitely someone or something with her, because what she'd tripped over had begun to move.
Visions of monsters and mages dancing through her head, because in a castle like the Citadel anything was possible, Cassara scrambled to her feet, still clutching her books to her chest, and ran for the door as fast as she could. She wove around several shelves of books, hoping to lose herself in the darkness, and then escaped through the doors, trusting the dark outside them to hide their opening and the silencing spells to hide the sound of them closing.
Leaving the library didn't soothe her wild visions, and she ran all the way back to her room, where she threw her books and scrolls under the bed and then hid herself under the blankets. It was uncomfortable, surrounded as she was by every pillow she had managed to steal, for she hadn't bothered to rid the bed of them before diving into it, but she hardly dared move. In fact, the most she dared was to pull the blankets over her head and pretend that she wasn't there. If I can't see it, it can't see me.
After a long while, however, no monsters or mages were forthcoming, and she dared move enough to remove the pillows from the bed, tossing them into a corner, before she squirmed down to make herself a bit more comfortable, pulled the blankets back up, and attempted to fall asleep.
She must have fallen asleep sometime, because she was jerked awake by the sound of Alex yelling. She sat upright, clawed her hair out of her face, and looked around wildly before she realized that he wasn't actually inside her room. No, he was somewhere else, though somewhere relatively close by, judging by how loud he was. As another bout of shouting started, Cassara winced and covered her ears.
"She was in the library, I'm telling you! Riesadel! She stole my research! I swear to the Ladies, Arita, I am going to kill her!"
The outburst was followed by Arita's voice, soft enough for her words to be indistinct, but Cassara thought the woman was probably trying to calm the prince down.
Why did he have to be so loud? Cassara groaned and pulled her pillow over her head, trying to drown out the yelling, which had started again. She'd hardly gotten it in place before she realized exactly what he meant. She sat upright, the pillow going flying off in some other direction. He'd been what she'd tripped over last night, and she'd apparently taken some of his research by mistakes.
She dove out of the bed, fishing around under it until the book and scroll came to her hand. She had to do something about them, before they were discovered and she was caught. She clutched the items to her chest, heart racing, wondering if Alex was going to kill her for this—and then figured if she was going to die, she might as well know why.
She carefully put the book down and unrolled the scroll until a few lines of text were visible. The handwriting was faded, and she had to squint to read it, but she managed.
The Citadel, built on a mass of tunnels in the rock from which it is carved, is not the ideal place for a fortress or prison of any kind. So why did Emperor Tristan choose to transform the Citadel from a privately-owned residence to a prison for dangerous mages? The location may be one important factor: the Citadel is far away from civilization. Escaped criminals would have nowhere to run, especially marked with the Citadel's custom brand of prison magic. But some say there is another reason: that the stone around the Citadel holds valuable minerals, and that the prisoners are sometimes used to mine these minerals for the Salentai family's profit….
Cassara scoffed. Obviously the author of this scroll was behind the times; everyone nowadays knew that the use of prisoners as slaves had died with Kara Lamoran. She shook her head and rolled the scroll back up. Why was Alex studying this? It was all far too old to be of any practical use. Was he just brushing up on his history, perhaps? She reached for the book, flipping it open to a random page.
Kara Lamoran's foretold return will likely never come about, so why do so many people fear the day her reincarnation is found? Popular theories state that Kara's reincarnation will lead another Emperor to the same fate as Emperor Tristan, and that she is actually destined to bring about the fall of the Arylian Empire. However, those are simply theories, and nothing will be proved until the reincarnation actually makes her appearance, if she ever actually does.
Cassara rolled her eyes. There was no such thing as reincarnation. People who believed in those theories were silly. She gathered the book and scroll in her arms and went for the door, steeling herself to face Alex. But as she reached for the doorknob, a prickle ran up her spine. What if this wasn't just history research? What if the people here believed that Kara Lamoran had been reincarnated…and that her reincarnation was Cassara? Everyone had spoken about her as if she'd been here before.
Her hand dropped, and she backed away from the door. I'm being silly, she told herself, even as she turned for the window. I couldn't possibly be Kara's reincarnation! Reincarnations don't exist! But nevertheless, she threw open the windows, clambered up onto the window seat, and threw the book out, watching it plummet into the ravine below. When it disappeared from sight, she reached for the scroll, tore at it until it was little more than a mound of shredded paper, and watched the wind take the pieces away.
Cassara spent several days mostly locked in her room, obeying my orders to remain confined to her bed. It was really best for her health, both in helping her recover from the chill she'd caught and in helping her escape Alex's wrath. He was furious that someone had dared sneak into the library and steal his research, and even more furious that he hadn't managed to nab the thief when she—for he was positive it was Nicole Riesadel—had bumped into him. Davien and I did our best to calm him down, but it was really for the best that Cassara was out of the way. I didn't want Alex to turn his temper on her, as he was likely to do due to her identity.
I looked in on her a few times to see how she was doing, and every time I found her with her nose buried in a book. I hadn't realized she was so interested in weaponry and armor—the books, having been fetched by Davien, all focused on such matters—and it was a bit worrying. Granted, a book about the make of swords wasn't likely to do much harm, but I still was reluctant to leave such items in the hands of a famous assassin. But as long as she stayed out of trouble…
I did stop in once to retrieve a mystery novel Alex had been reading; I'd noticed it on the bedside table one time I had been in Cassara's room. It had probably been mixed in with the books Davien had grabbed, and she had put it aside to focus her attention on other things. For the most part, however, I left Cassara to her own devices, allowing the servants to make sure she had baths and food while Davien and I prevented Alex from tearing the Citadel apart stone by stone.
Not that he would have been able to. The castle's carved out of the living rock, after all, so he would have to destroy it all in one go if he wanted to get anywhere at all.
I was in my room, savoring a few moments free of Alex's ranting, when the door to my room opened. I sighed and closed the history book I had been reading, hoping to gain a better handle on what Cassara might be prone to doing—and looked up to find Cassara herself looking at me.
"I am sick and tired to being stuck in my room," she announced. "Let's go to the ballroom. I haven't danced in ages."
I eyed her, one eyebrow raised. She was wearing one of the dresses she had brought from whatever small town she had come from, short enough that it just brushed her calves—scandalously short, really. "I don't think so," I said, reaching for my book once again.
"Please, Arita? It's no fun dancing alone, and I can't find Davien—"
"What about Alex?"
"He's a prince. I'm sure he has better things to do. Please?"
And she gave me a look, widening her eyes and thrusting out her lower lip. I sighed and stood. "Fine," I said. "But I am not wearing something like that." I sent a pointed look at her dress, and she rolled her eyes in reply.
"Fine. Come on!"
She was practically dancing already, spinning down the hallways which led to the ballroom, her arms flung out. "I'm just itching to move again," she said. "These performers who came to Mali—"
"Mali. It's the town I'm from, about two weeks from here. You can see the mountains and there's a little offshoot of the Saralema River nearby, and there are actually trees, can you believe it? It's the most beautiful place in the world—"
She had obviously never seen Arylia, though she had reason to be excited about trees near her hometown; they were notoriously rare in Arylia, and had been growing rarer every year. "I believe you," I cut in. "What about these performers?"
"Oh! They played this song, and I can't get it out of my head lately. It's not really suited to a reel or anything like that, so I'm not sure what I'll do with it…" She rambled on, and I shook my head.
"What was the name of the song?"
"Something 'rain.' Desperate rain? Uhm…something with a d…"
"Diamond Rain," I said instantly. The song had been popular in Arylia recently, or so my mother's letters said, though why a bunch of performers would have played it in a middle-of-nowhere town was beyond my comprehension.
"Yes! That's the one!"
"Well, then, I have some bad news for you, because Diamond Rain is meant to be a waltz."
Cassara's delighted expression faltered. "I don't know how to waltz."
I hadn't expected her to. Farm girls typically didn't. I didn't really have a reply, though, so I just shrugged.
We reached the doors to the ballroom, which opened at the lightest touch from Cassara. She traipsed down the stairs, her hand gliding over the banister, and stepped on the marble floor before turning to look at me. I stopped several steps up.
"Well?" she asked. "Come on. Show me your dancing skills! You're a lady, aren't you? You should know how to waltz. Teach me!"
I winced. "I don't think so," I said. "I don't dance."
"Why not? Shouldn't you know how? Didn't you go to a finishing school or something?"
"Yes, I went to finishing school," I sniffed. "But I decided to focus on the techniques required to run the Citadel, instead of the techniques needed to woo someone on the dance floor." But I could tell by the set of her face that she wasn't going to let the subject drop. With a sigh, I stepped down onto the floor.
I had barely taken three turning steps before Cassara was attempting to correct me—and she didn't even know what I was trying to do. I rolled my eyes but did as she asked, and took a few more steps with similar results. This continued for a few minutes before I finally stormed back to the stairs and sat down, though I did pause to make sure I wouldn't rumple my dress too badly. "Go on," I said, waving my hand at the vast expanse of floor. "Go dance. You were the one who wanted to, remember?"
Cassara huffed and stalked away to the center of the floor. I watched as she went, my mind still on that dress. How could she wear something so short without feeling completely naked? It was indecent.
In the middle of the ballroom, perfectly centered on the sun and moon design laid into the floor, Cassara positioned herself as if she were dancing with a partner, and just a moment later, she began to move.
She was marvelous. I don't know how a common girl knew how to dance so well—it must have been a natural gift, because she could have never afforded lessons—but Cassara was magnificent. She only paused a few times, trying out a few different combinations of steps before she continued on. She whirled about the ballroom, around and around, until she finally came to a stop before me, panting slightly.
"Well," I said, "it was sort of a waltz…" And it had been. It wasn't any waltz I knew, certainly, but she'd had the rhythm of it.
She shrugged. "I'm going to go again."
I waved a hand. "By all means."
She nodded, drew a few deep breaths, and walked back to the center of the floor. "All right," she called back to me. "But it's going to look silly, since I don't have a partner or music."
"I know the tune," I called back.
Just before Cassara began, I saw her close her eyes—and at the same time, I heard the doors open above me. I turned, looking up the staircase, and saw Alex standing on the balcony, looking down. He turned his gaze to me and raised an eyebrow. I pressed a finger to my lips and pointed to Cassara. He nodded, looked back at her for a few more moments, and then descended the other side of the staircase, stepping onto the floor and crossing to her.
He circled her several times, watching her closely, and then suddenly stepped into her arms, taking her hands in his and sliding perfectly into the dance.
I'd forgotten. Unlike Davien and I, Alex actually knew how to dance—his mother and a team of tutors had drilled it into him, along with every other princely behavior, from a young age. And they were perfect together; as soon as Alex stepped in and began to lead, Cassara followed, without even opening her eyes.
They spiraled around the ballroom, drawing closer and closer to where Cassara had begun in the center, and then, as I reached the last bar of Diamond Rain in my head, Alex dipped her. I winced; I wouldn't have let him do that with me. At a ball in Arylia once, he'd dropped me as a joke, and I'd had a bump the size of an egg on the back of my head for a week. Cassara, however, simply went with the motion, and then allowed him to pull her upright.
From her sharp gasp and slight leap backward I garnered that she had finally opened her eyes; she must have thought her partner had been someone else, maybe Davien. Before either she or Alex could ruin the moment by babbling or arguing or doing something else stupid, I decided to give them a round of applause. The sound shattered the silence of the room, and they both whirled to look at me.
"Marvelous," I proclaimed. "You two were wonderful together." I gave each of them a meaningful look—I still hadn't given up on my plan to have Alex marry Cassara and get us all out of this mess. It was a bit farfetched, I knew, but it could work. Cassara responded to my look with a scowl, Alex with a roll of his eyes. "I mean it!" I said. "You two should teach Davien. He' shad his eye on this girl for ages now, and knowing a new dance at the Yule Ball in Arylia might help him win her and her parents over." Though Cassara would be hard-pressed to turn Davien into a competent dancer; he was just as horrible as me.
"I'll try," she said, nodding. "But I've never had to actually teach anyone before. I don't know how it'll work out." She dragged her forearm across her forehead, making a face. "I'm going to go take a bath," she said. "Thank you for coming with me, Arita. Your…Alex." Despite the informality I had encouraged in her, she still bobbed the tiniest of curtsies before she went for the staircase, taking the stairs two at a time and vanishing from the room.
Cassara retrieved a clean dress from the Moon Room and hauled it—and it really did require hauling, it was so heavy—down the stairs and through the hallways to where the washroom was. There was probably another closer to the rooms she and Arita occupied, but she didn't have the patience to look for it. She supposed she could have ordered a bath, as Arita had been doing for her, but she wasn't quite comfortable with ordering around people of her own class. She would have fetched her own meals if she could have determined the location of the kitchen.
As she opened the door to the steam-filled room, her dance-induced euphoria suddenly evaporated. The last time she'd been in this room, she had nearly drowned. She carefully hung the dress on a strategically-placed hook and surveyed the room, making sure no one was there before she approached the water—she didn't want to get pushed in again. She stood at the edge of the pool for a long moment, taking deep breaths. It's not even deep, she told herself. You can get in.
But before she could rouse herself to actually undress and slip into the water, someone knocked at the door. She slumped, grateful for an excuse to retreat. "I'll be right there," she called. She turned, meaning to go for the door—and slipped.
Her right foot slid over the edge of the pool, upsetting her balance and pulling her with it. She screamed as she tumbled toward the water, and instinctively inhaled just a moment too late. Water poured into her lungs. And the only thought going through her mind was, Not again.
But before she could drown, a hand closed around her wrist and pulled her out.
She spent a few minutes coughing the water out of her lungs, and then collapsed on the floor with her forehead pressed to the cool tile. At this rate, she decided, she was never going to bathe again. Finally, she cracked open an eye to look at her rescuer, even though she already had her suspicions as to who it was.
They were confirmed when she was Alex sitting just off to the side, watching her. His sleeve was soaked to the elbow and he was sitting in a puddle, but he hadn't seemed to have noticed. "Are you all right?" he asked.
"I'm fine," she croaked. "Thank you. Though it seems that whenever you're around, I start to drown, so perhaps it would be better if we went our separate ways."
"I wholeheartedly agree," he said. "However, I should probably deliver Arita's message first. She said that she's tracked down Davien and he's waiting for a dancing lesson in the ballroom. There. My task is complete." He stood and frowned at his clothes, seeming to realize they were wet for the first time.
"Why did Arita send you instead of coming herself?"
"She's up to something, I'm sure," Alex answered absentmindedly, probing his wet sleeve with a finger. "Blast. It's ruined, I think…"
"And why did you come in here, anyway?" Cassara demanded. "What if I had actually been in the bath?"
Alex looked back at her, raising his eyebrows. "Do you value your modesty over your life?" he asked. "Interesting. I assumed since you screamed and splashed you were probably in trouble, considering that just a few days ago we had an incident in which you nearly drowned. I thought I was helping you, and it seems I was right. And you weren't actually in the bath—well, you were, but not in the sense you mean, I believe—so the point isn't a valid one, anyway." He gave her a brief, sharp nod, and made his exit.
Cassara stared after him, not sure if she should be confused or appalled. Had she actually argued with the heir to the Empire? Had she really been so stupid? She shuddered, and then realized the shudder had been half shiver. She rose and crossed to the door, locking it, before stripping out of her wet clothing and changing into the dry dress she had brought, making sure she stayed far away from the edge of the pool as she did so.
Finally, she was dressed, albeit barefoot—the slippers she had been wearing had been soaked through by her fall into the water. She would have to go barefoot through the halls to retrieve some other type of footwear from her rooms. But she didn't have any slippers which matched this dress, and her boots had been ruined in her previous spill into the bath—Arita had told her so.
She went upstairs, planning to grab something to wear on her feet from her room, but paused in front of Arita's room, shifting from foot to foot. "I'm sure she wouldn't mind," she finally said aloud, and pushed the door open. She retrieved a pair of slippers from the noble woman's closet, hopping from one foot to the other as she pulled them on. On her way out of the room, her eyes fell on the history book Arita had been reading when Cassara had disturbed her.
"She's still reading that?" she murmured. Her fingers itched to pick it up, to see what was so interesting. Was it something more about Kara Lamoran? "No," she said, scolding herself. "Get going." She forced herself to walk by the book and out of the room before gathering the skirts of the dress in her hands and running for the ballroom.
Cassara burst back into the room, her hair dripping wet and steaming slightly in the castle's cold air. At least she was dressed decently this time—she was wearing one of the dresses I had lent her, and a pair of slippers peeked out from under the skirts as she hastened down the stairs to the ballroom floor. Thank the Ladies she had taken the time to change. If I had been scandalized by the dress she had been wearing earlier, I couldn't imagine what Davien would have said upon seeing her with her calves bared. He was already uncomfortable, and that was only because he was in the ballroom, a room he hated.
I'd coaxed him out of his armor, at least. His chain mail, helmet, gloves, and ever-present stock of weapons were lying in a pile near the base of the stairs Cassara careened down, and she nearly tripped over them as she tried to stumble to a stop.
"Here," she said, holding her hand out to Davien and pressing a hand to her midriff, panting. "Let's go. We'll manage well enough, I think. Are you any better than your sister at dancing?"
"He's worse," I said. "And you can't just start dancing with him. He'll need to see the steps, first."
"Alex learned them without seeing them," Cassara objected. She must have seen my instant glower, because she winced almost as soon as the words were out of her mouth.
"And Davien can plan a full-fledged duel just by watching his opponent's warm up, something Alex couldn't even dream of doing," I ground out. Who did she think she was to insult my brother? "They're different people."
She sighed and shook her head. "All right," she said. "Where's Alex? He can help." But as she spoke, she shifted a bit, as if nervous. If she was here, she must have seen Alex just moments ago when he delivered her message. What had happened?
Before I could ask, Alex entered the ballroom, taking the stairs at a much more sedate pace than Cassara had. "I'm right here. Why? Do you need help?" There was a grin on his face, one of the cheeky ones I had tried to slap off more than once when we had been children. It had never worked, and I had since stopped trying.
"Desperately," Cassara ground out. I could practically hear the strain of her teeth grinding against each other. "If you would be so kind as to accompany me?"
I raised an eyebrow at her.
"Please?" she added.
Alex's grin turned to a smirk, and he held out his arm. Cassara stared at it—she had probably never seen such a gesture before—and turned away, walking to the center of the floor. Alex looked at me, shrugged, and followed.
"Watch them," I murmured to Davien, moving closer to him. "Look at the way they move. They're made for each other."
"I thought this lesson was supposed to be about me, not them?"
I waved my hand. "A ploy, nothing more. Now hush."
Alex had pulled Cassara into the starting position of the dance; they were almost body to body. She squirmed a little farther away from him, and I rolled my eyes. He wasn't trying to seduce her; he was just trying to make her uncomfortable. My plan would go much better if Alex stopped acting like a child and started acting like the suave prince I knew he could be.
And then they danced. They moved like they were one person. I knew that Alex was leading—the man always leads in a dance—but it was hard to tell, they were so in sync. Their lips were moving, I could see, though I couldn't hear what they were saying from such a distance. How could they talk and move like that at the same time? I would have been tripping all over myself.
Alex's hands abruptly shifted to Cassara's waist, and he lifted her into the air, spinning once before setting her down right into the next step. Had that been in the dance before? I didn't remember it. Were they improvising? And that—had that been a laugh? Was Alex laughing? My plan might still be in tact after all.
"Aren't they perfect for each other?" I asked Davien. "Alex doesn't believe me, though, and Cassara—well, she was appalled at the suggestion."
Davien wasn't listening to me. I could tell, because instead of responding to my words, he said, "I'll never be able to dance like that, though I bet Michelle would have me if I could."
On the floor, Alex dipped Cassara, a smooth movement to which she seemed to surrender without hesitation. They remained there for a long moment before he pulled her upright. She curtsied, a wobbling gesture, and he gave a flawless bow, and they stepped apart.
"Did you see that?" Cassara called across the floor to Davien. He nodded. "Good. Come here, we'll work on it."
He hesitated. "Actually…" I knew it. He hadn't picked up the steps as he'd implied he had. There was no way he would have been able to so quickly. "I'm not sure I got a few parts. Could you do it again?"
Cassara stood stock still for a long moment before she shook her head. "Not right now, Davien," she sighed. "I'm exhausted. I've been dancing all day, and there's only so much I can do. Can we do this later tonight? After dinner, maybe?"
Davien shook his head. "I have guard duty," he said. "Unlike my dear sister, I actually work around here."
I swatted at him, but he dodged. I scowled; that blow should have landed. I'd forgotten how fast he was without the weight of his weapons and armor.
"Then we'll do it tomorrow." But before Davien could agree, she was already gone, racing up the stairs and out of the ballroom.
She didn't want to dance with Alex again. She really didn't. She wasn't sure how much trouble she could get into with the Prince of Altorah and the Arylian Empire, but she was relatively sure that it could end in her death, something she wasn't keen on. But surviving and clearing her name meant staying on the good side of all the nobles in the Citadel, including the prince—especially the prince.
So she didn't protest his presence when he appeared again. She needed his help, anyway, if she was to teach Davien. She led the way to the center of the floor and let him put one hand at the small of her back and take the other in his. They were so close. She squirmed away a little bit, but it wasn't enough, and she would have to stay close to him for the dance to work.
"Ready?" Alex murmured.
"I have to be, now don't I?"
And they began to move. Alex was leading, but she matched him perfectly. It was as if they had been born for this dance, though she knew that was ridiculous. They swirled, turned, danced backward and forward around the room, their movements almost effortless.
"You're good," she said, breaking the awkward silence between them.
"As are you, for someone who I suspect has never waltzed before in her life."
"I have too waltzed before."
"That doesn't count. And I think you'd be a bit better if we had music."
"I do feel a bit ridiculous without it."
"But that's half the fun. Feeling ridiculous, I mean. Do you realize you're the first person other than family or Arita and Davien to scold me? Even my tutors tried to avoid that. Even the Emperor avoids that."
She stumbled. Alex covered marvelously, shifting his hands to her waist and lifting her up, spinning her around and putting her down into the next step of the dance. She stared, wide-eyed, and then remembered exactly why she had stumbled. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to." She didn't specify if she meant scolding him or stumbling.
He didn't seem to care. "I'll let it go, this time." He was grinning again, the cocky smile she longed to smack off his face but didn't dare to. "I found it quite amusing."
"I should slap you for that. Arita would, I think."
"Ah, now that I'm not sure I could forgive."
She cocked her head to the side, squinting at him. "I can't tell if you're joking or not."
"Just the way I like it."
Another swirl, another circuit of the room, working their way closer and closer to the center until they were spinning in place, around and around. Alex tipped her backward, and she stiffened. What if he dropped her? She didn't want to crack her head on the marble.
"Trust me," he whispered, his breath a warm brush against her cheek. "I won't drop you."
It took a concentration of will, but Cassara relaxed into the dip, letting Alex dangle her over the hard floor. They stayed like that for a long moment, and then brought her back up. Her hesitation hadn't taken any longer than a moment. When she looked at Arita and Davien, it was plain they hadn't noticed at all.
She couldn't bear the idea of dancing with Alex again. It was too much of a strain on her nerves. Even being near him was making her twitchy, and when Davien said he couldn't practice later that night, she was more than relieved, taking the opportunity to flee to her room before Arita—or, worse, Alex—could stop her.
By the time Davien's dancing lesson was over the next day, Cassara's feet were aching and she wanted to fall over. He departed in a happy haze, convinced he was halfway to winning Michelle's heart, and Cassara collapsed on the ballroom stairs, pulling off her slippers to massage her feet. Alex had already departed, leaving Cassara all alone, something for which she was immensely grateful. She wanted to think about the strange happenings of the Citadel.
"Someone's making him give that ring to me. He couldn't possibly think it was a good idea on his own," she muttered, putting her face in her hands. "But who? And what am I supposed to do about it?"
She sat there for a long time, until the cold of the room began to sank into her bones. Shivering, with gooseflesh popping up on her arms, she fled to the Moon Room. She pulled the quilt from the bed and wrapped it around herself, threw another log on the fire, and crossed to the window. As soon as she looked out, her heart skipped a beat. It was snowing, light, fluffy flakes drifting down to coat the mountains.
"Oh, no," she whispered, pressing her fingers to the cold glass. "It's winter? When did it become winter?" It couldn't be winter. The days at the Citadel had certainly been blurring together, but winter?
She didn't remember that winter came early in the mountains. All she could think of was her family, watching as the first snow fell, clinging to the house, the barn, the trees, having to forge a path into Mali, of Gael and Estelle building snowmen and having snowball fights. And she was missing it.
She'd forgotten. Her time in the Citadel had seemed like a fairy story, and she'd forgotten how much she was missing. She'd been living in an enchanted castle in the company of mages, dancing in a ballroom, wearing the clothes of a princess, but none of it mattered, because she was missing everything.
She turned, dropped the blanket, and ran. She didn't know where she was going, she just knew that she had to get away from everything, even if it wasn't actually possible. She would just run and run and eventually she wouldn't be able to run anymore, wouldn't be able to think anymore, and then it would all be all right. She ran and ran, until she hit a particularly slick spot of floor and went sprawling. She barked her hands and knees on the floor, tore her dress, scraped her face, and couldn't summon the effort to move.
Alex found her there almost an hour later. He stood above her for a long moment before crouching down and shaking her shoulder. She turned her head to look at him, but before she could ask anything, he helped her into a sitting position and draped his cloak around her shoulders. "You're freezing," he said. And then he pressed his fingers to her face. Cold fire washed through her, and the little injuries she had acquired in the past day or so—her scraped face, skinned hands and knees, and scabby knuckles—healed themselves.
"Thank you." But before he could say anything in response, she practically threw herself to the floor at his feet. "I have to go home," she pleaded. "Please, please, please, Alex, Your Highness, you have to let me go! Just for a little while, at least! I'm dying in this place! I have to leave!" She was exaggerating, she knew that, but she couldn't bring herself to stop.
"I can't let you do that," he said. "I'm sorry, but I can't. It's not my choice, and it's not yours, either. I sent a letter to the Emperor—"
"You did what?" She stared in shock. She hadn't even requested that he plead her case with the Emperor.
"I sent a letter to the Emperor," he repeated. "Quite frankly, Cassara, I don't think you're the girl we're looking for. Anyway, he denied my request to let you go. We're going to have to appeal to the Emperor in person." He paused. "We're going to Arylia."
Cassara swallowed. "You're going to Arylia," she repeated. "All three of you?" Were they just going to leave her in the Citadel, with the company of no one but a bunch of guards and criminal mages?
"No," Alex said. "We're going to Arylia. You're coming with us. We have to appeal your case in person, and the Emperor certainly isn't going to come here, which means you're going to Arylia."