The room swirled with so much color that she supposed the world would never stop spinning.
A thousand faces whirled around the intricate pattern of tables set with roses, and her cheek was cast under the shadow of an orange marigold, its petals beginning to wilt. The ceiling flourished with images sketched with grandeur, and it was adorned by a silver forest seething with lithe creatures, all enchanted to move on their own. A deer paused to observe the ceremony before prancing into the painted dawn. Shimmering gowns skimmed the floor as women shifted in their seats, completely absorbed in tonight’s atmosphere, half-moons of pleasure etched on their lips.
She sat alone, her once proudly loose hair swept into fiery locks, fingers nervously pressing the folds of her dress. Her furtive eyes grazed the entrance every so often, but she was disappointed by the guard leaning on the pillar. His cool gaze met hers and she anxiously looked away. She cast her face downward, struggling to contain her worries and to disguise a disturbing trait that had haunted her since birth: her eyes changed color depending on her mood. She stifled a sigh as her mismatched irises – one sapphire, one violet – were already fading into gray.
The girl of sixteen was as contradictory as a raindrop seated within a flame; her angular face contrasted with the soft ribbons of her gown, while the fringed lashes of her eyes conflicted with the rogue nature of her chin. She glanced away from the sea of tables and peered down at her plate. A face surveyed her, possessing a pale completion and a prominent sharp nose, and swift darting eyes calmed with azure eyeliner. Her usually hollow cheeks were blushed with amber, and her harsh eyebrows had been carved into gentler curves, but nothing could ever mask her bitter stare.
Dancing lights encircled by glossy berries cast an inviting glimmer across the tabletop. A luminescent pond created artfully with a few flowers, apples, and floating candles added movement to the coming night. The soft glow on smiling faces resonated with the layered, textured accents, while the sound of a hundred voices speaking in unison clashed with the music of a fountain. Fine floral wires swung erratically from ivory columns and draped over vacant seats, curling themselves into a clinging web where songbirds resided.
Her mind drifted away from the subtle splendor to the memory of turquoise waters and golden sands, and to a small face frozen in time. “You can’t fail,” she had whispered. “Not when the world is about to turn. I’ll wait for you… wait until the third child returns.”
But he wasn’t a child. He never was. And the world was already turning, beyond anyone’s control.
She sent her hair cascading over her shoulder before regarding the stars beyond the pale horizon. Just like her, they were forlorn and utterly alone, hovering in an unyielding night. If one fell no one would ever notice, for it was only one shard of light among thousands – or millions – of others. She thought about how far they had come, and wondered when everything unraveled if it would be the silent death of the trivial flower, or the cosmic destruction of the tenacious flame. Her promise to Rigel meant nothing if their strength dwindled in the final stand, or if others suffered because of their feeble victory. They lost before they ever won.
The foreign chatter of the evening’s guests suddenly dissolved into applause, and she lifted her head as a painfully familiar figure entered into their midst. Her steady breathing was punctured by a gasp. He had finally returned.
He was almost unrecognizable, with a charismatic demeanor and a suit that echoed his pristine smile. As he greeted the crowd she had to remind herself that his secret sinister personality had never changed, nor had the darkness in his eyes ever been quenched. Yet never before did he look so sure of himself; his confidence was out of place, and almost unnerving, for someone who was a stranger here just as she was.
As he sent a blinding grin out to the left section he suddenly noticed her, sitting under a curtain of dappling green. Their eyes locked for an instant. His smile slipped away and she stared back, unafraid, until he resumed addressing the multitude of guests. While he approached she pretended to be transfixed by a blossom, touching its frail foliage as she peeked up again. His back was now turned to her. He was speaking to an elderly man in Kutorian, a language that she only half-understood.
“It’s a pleasure, Leo….Do tell….Plans and….So surprised you came,” the other man remarked.
“If time permits…soon,” Leo responded.
She was about to turn when he spun around and sat down at her table. Girls waved from across the room, inviting him to speak with them instead, but he declined with a shake of the head. Several people were staring at her with interest, and even hostility, but they gradually looked away.
“Enjoying yourself, Zoe?”
She was caught off guard by his sudden question. She searched for an appropriate response but only seized the truth. “No,” she spat out defiantly.
He was amused. “Why not?”
She feigned interest in the marigold once more, and then examined the russet tapestry above her. The forest scene was morphing into a chaos of beauty.
“Yes, they put in a lot of effort, didn’t they?” he mused. “But I’m not interested in the ceiling, Zoemeria.”
She winced when he pronounced her full name, for no one, not even her closest friends had ever dared call her that. Her irises flared into a seething scarlet. “What’s with this new popularity? From what I remember, you always have been cynical, too afraid to trust anyone, even yourself. But now… Leo the crowd pleaser, Leo the gentleman? When you have always been an outcast?” she mocked. It was making him angry but she didn’t care.
He smiled, a forced grin enfolding on his lips. “That’s none of your business,” he whispered.
“Yes, it is, because it involves all of us. When was the last time that you tried acting human, Leo? Trust me, it doesn’t hurt.”
“Human?” he laughed. “You too, have changed I see. I don’t recall you ever being so hysterical.”
Zoe clenched her fist, letting her nails bite into her palm. “We once trusted you. What happened to the three of us, fighting for our lives together? Why won’t you listen now?”
As an answer, he flashed his famous smile. His pupils darkened, becoming blacker than an abyss, and Zoe vaguely felt her fingertips cooling. If her eyes were merely an annoyance, then his were fatal. “Look at me, Zoe,” he hissed, “and tell me where you were hiding all this time.”
She couldn’t look at him. She knew better not to, and continued staring at a candle flame until blots engulfed her vision. “Well, I –”
“Zoe?” he said dangerously.
She glanced up, propelled by the venom in his voice, and as soon as she gazed into the inferno of his pupils reality shattered. The room slid into oblivion as icy winds consumed her mind, and yet she could not look away. With a flash of panic, she realized that he had been practicing. How often… every day? Every hour? But it was already too late for her.
Even as the warm smell of cider lingered just beyond the darkness, tantalizingly sweet, the world was melting. Zoe was drawn deeper into a landscape of stony frost, colder than a glacial sea but more insubstantial than smoke. Black flames were disintegrating her and spinning faster than the billowing wick from before. The chill was scraping inside her lungs and with each breath her mind was shutting down. Fire…
Swimming spots still obscured her eyes, clouds of fainter gray on a tapestry of night. As they drifted upwards, little specks of light surfaced around them until a patch of darkness shattered. Seizing this chance, she labored to tilt them ever so slightly until they blotted out the illusion. The vicious gales faded when she confronted the radiance from the hall.
Zoe snapped out of the vision, continuing to drift through freezing air even as cheery candlelight flickered on her face. Other than the distant chatter, everything was still and silent. She cautiously opened her eyes and they took in Leo’s empty chair. When did he leave? Suspicion gripped her and she spun around, anticipating another attack. No. He was gone. She scanned the tables, finding him in the front alongside a girl who seemed vaguely familiar. She had straight black hair that spilled down to her waist, and a long, regal face that was marred by a cold smile. Zoe frowned, sifting through her memories and coming up with nothing.
She wore a golden gown that flowed over her with the ease of a gauzy willow, which was covered with gems. She was tall and beautiful, and her eyes were brutally calculating. She looked away from Leo to reach at her bracelet that had gone astray.
The girl suddenly turned around and caught the girl staring. The intensity of her hatred sent Zoe a shiver that she could not suppress, and while she doubted that the girl could do her any harm like Leo did, she decided to look safely away. Out of the corner of her eye, Zoe caught her smirking.