Chapter Six: Again the Pain
She entered the castle ballroom fashionably late. Of course, she hadn't been tardy on purpose; it had simply taken her a while to remember all there was to know about attending balls. Her gown, a flowing cerulean blue, proved to be a royal pain to don, even with the help of the maid. Too many laces and hooks and buttons. Then there were the matching heel slippers. She'd had to practice walking in them for a good half-hour before she was sure she wouldn't trip at the castle. Even her hair presented a problem, as the mass of orange-gold locks refused to stay neatly tied with a delicate blue bow. She had had to use a bigger -and black- bow instead. The only article of clothing that hadn't given her any stress was the pair of elbow-high, blue silk gloves.
As she unobtrusively glided down the red carpet to the dancing floor, she asked herself for the hundredth time why she was even going through all this trouble of appearing at the King of Pandora's celebration. Because the prospect of me attending a party makes Father so incredibly happy. Because I'll do just this one thing for him; he is one of the two people that love me. Even so, she had adamantly rejected his idea of going as an available young lady. To that point, she had tied a black mourning band about her upper arm.
Once Purim reached the floor, she scooted over to the area where people were socializing and basically not dancing. She hadn't had enough time to review dance steps and hoped to avoid any embarrassing blunders.
"Psst! Purim! Over here!" a voice from behind a pillar called.
Purim peered cautiously around the marble column...and was immediately yanked behind it and into a dimly lit, inconspicuous corner. Purim was about to deliver a blow to the person's face, when she realized the identity of the short-haired blond. "Krissie?" she gasped in disbelief. Krissie was wearing a dress: a soft green gown that complimented her strong-willed features. To anyone else in the room, Krissie's attire might not have been surprising. But Purim had only seen Krissie wear one outfit: camouflage pants with an identically patterned long-sleeved shirt, combat boots, and a bandanna. This young woman had bravely led the Resistance against Emperor Vandole during the war. Purim glanced over Krissie for a second time, not quite believing her eyes. Krissie At War was definitely a huge contrast to Krissie In A Ballroom. She couldn't help but be slightly amused at the other woman's blatant nervousness.
"You have absolutely no idea how glad I am to find you here!" Krissie said in a whisper. "Everyone else is talking about stuff I don't know anything about and care nothing for, I'm not a very good dancer, and I really want to get out of here but am obliged to stay!"
"Well, you see," she started in the same tone, "the council called for representatives from all the major factions of the former Empire. You know, to help decide who the new leader would be. So, as a respected and polite representative, I'm supposed to look like I enjoy these types of formal parties, these endless rumors random noblewomen keep telling me for no apparent reason, and wearing a dress and slippers! Give me band of rebels with a noble cause to lead any day! At least those don't give me such big headaches." She concluded her release of frustration with a huff and a folding of her arms.
"I...suppose I could tell the king that you're not feeling well...."
Krissie grabbed onto the offer as if it were a lifeline. "Oh, would you? It would look really tacky if I told him myself. I couldn't be that sick if I had the strength to tell him myself, after all. Then he wouldn't believe me about feeling sick and would most likely think that I was insulting him by leaving this cursed ball." Her sigh came out in one big rush. "I'm telling you, polite politics bother me to no end!"
Purim's smile widened at Krissie's long-winded explanation. "Go ahead!" she said, motioning for Krissie to take the passage down the hall.
"Thanks!" In a flash of green, Krissie disappeared around the corner. After waving to a dancing Phanna, Purim deftly maneuvered her way up to the king's throne and curtsied deferentially to both he and the queen. "Your Highnesses. Krissie of Southtown has asked that I tell you that she was feeling ill and had to retire to her chamber early."
The king nodded, and then his face lit in recognition. "Why Lady Purim! I am delighted to finally meet Pandora's very own Mana warrior again. I do hope that you don't hold a grudge about your father and I sending off that soldier you seemed quite fond of."
She barely restrained a glare of contempt. And no matter how much etiquette decreed that she excuse the king's behavior, she simply could not bring herself to say, "Oh, that's okay, Your Highness. Think nothing of it." The king, however, took her silence to mean forgiveness, and went on to speak cheerfully. "Unfortunately, my nephew married another noblewoman while you were on your quest. I'm afraid that he thought his betrothed had passed away.... But you are clearly alive and well, Lady Purim, and at least you're moving on with your life; I've heard that you and Sir Randi are going to be wed...." Purim wondered if he deliberately chose to ignore her band of mourning. The king paused and said questioningly, "Where is that young man?"
"He's...gone." Purim informed him. "And we're not getting married."
"Gone?" he said, confused. "Not getting married? Oh...I see. Have you had a little tiff already? Ah, youth."
"No," Purim explained, trying to keep the exasperation out of her voice. "We're not-."
A sudden hush fell over the entire crowd. Purim turned her head to see none other than the Mana Knight himself, Randi. His hair was still mussed, but stylistically so. His usual outfit had been exchanged for a clean, neatly-cut black tuxedo that revealed his trim form. His hands were encased in sleek white gloves. All eyes had stopped upon him when he entered through a side corridor of the castle.
The Queen of Pandora broke the quiet by standing and clapping enthusiastically. "Pandora, may I present to you the great Mana Knight!" Many people joined in the cheering. Several ladies simpered at his dashing looks. "And," he queen added, just as excitedly, "by my side is the other surviving Mana warrior: Pandora's very own Lady Purim!" The applause became significantly louder. "Now," she finished, sitting down with flourish, "resume the music and dancing!"
The people began dancing to the new waltz, and Purim spotted Randi making his way up to the king and queen. He was actually here? Her heart pounded at seeing him again after sharing that rather spiteful argument. Not to mention that she had told him to get out of her life forever.... And here he was again, in her home kingdom. Why? And just what had he been telling people? Though she wanted to demand answers from him, she also had the urge to melt into the background to avoid confronting him. Unfortunately, doing so would portray her as rude and cowardly; there was no way to politely migrate to the side before he reached them.
In a few seconds, Randi had spanned the distance between the doorway and the raised dais. To Purim's surprise, he spoke not to the king or queen, but to herself. "My Lady Purim," he said softly, bowing at his waist, "it would be my utmost pleasure if you would join me for a dance." He extended his gloved hand to her.
Purim could hear the queen behind her, clapping encouragingly. Purim looked at his bowed head. What was he doing? His choice of diction in front of the royalty didn't even sound like him at all. "I'm sorry, King Randi, but I'm afraid that I must decline your offer. I haven't danced in so long that I fear I may step on your toes."
At that, Randi looked up at her and grinned, lowering his voice conspiratorially. "Don't worry, Purim. I'm not too good myself. Jema just taught me a few days ago."
The king laughed at her hesitancy. "Go on, young man! Sweep her off her feet!" Purim grit her teeth together; she could hardly back out now. She lightly placed her own gloved hand into Randi's warm one. "I am truly honored," he said with a twinkle in his eye, and led her out onto the dance floor. Purim placed her other hand on one of his broad shoulders, as was proper, while he rested his other hand on her slim waist. Unwillingly, Purim noticed that she could feel his heat, even through the two layers of clothing they both wore.
For the first couple of rotations, neither said anything. They both wanted to avoid discussing their last parting words. Finally, Purim spoke, not quite looking Randi in the eye. "Randi, this isn't like you at all...."
His chuckle shook his shoulders. "No, I'm guessing it isn't," he said wryly. "But Jema insisted I fix myself up just in case I decided to be the King of Southtown."
They moved gracefully across the dance floor. And he claimed he didn't dance well! Luckily, Purim had regained her rhythm and was able to follow his lead. "Wait," she said, the meaning of his words registering. "You mean you haven't accepted the title yet?"
"Yep," Randi said nonchalantly. In truth, however, this whole business of kingship was weighing heavily on his mind. The council had presented the title to him a week ago, after his arrival, but he had only told them that he would think about it. They were driving him crazy with their daily pestering. He wasn't about to explain the real reason for his hesitancy, though; he needed to sort out his life first. And at the top of his list of priorities was Purim. For an entire week he had stressed over her condition, thinking of going back to Mandala, but then painfully remembering her wish. Now she was with him once again. He spun her around and then brought her close.
Purim was overcome with a disturbing sensation, then blurt out, "Randi, why are you here?"
Randi missed a step at her sudden question. "Oh," he said, continuing the dance. "Well, Pandora was the next place to visit on the list.... Remember?"
Randi looked down at her hidden expression, wondering what she meant by that simple response. Did she detect that his answer wasn't the entire truth? Yes, Pandora had been the next place on the list, but he suspected that other reasoning had brought him instinctively to this kingdom. Purim had been bound to return to her place of birth eventually....
There was lengthy period of silence as they kept on twirling to the lively and sweet flow of the music. "Randi, people are saying that we're going to get married," Purim said quietly, and she tilted her head back to glance at his eyes.
Randi knew what she was asking. "Yes, I know. But I didn't tell them that, I swear!" When she examined his face for lies, she found he was telling her the truth. "I guess that they just think we make a good couple...." Uhn! Randi reprimanded himself a second after it slipped out and Purim got that faraway look. Wrong choice of words! Stupid! "Purim? Are you okay?" He slowed his steps due to the fact that she had suddenly gone pale. "Purim?"
Purim snapped out of her trance and blinked Randi into focus. "I...I'm feeling sick from the...happiness." Her hand slipped from his shoulder.
Randi maintained his hold on her waist and started leading her towards the back doorway. "C'mon, let's get out of here." He tried to stay inconspicuous so that no one would follow them out into the moonlit castle garden. Luckily, none of the exuberant celebrants seemed to notice their hurried exit.
After spotting a fairly secluded tree, Randi carefully seated Purim underneath its full branches. He felt her forehead. It didn't feel hot. It didn't even feel warm. It was that chill again. "Purim? Do you feel alright? I thought that getting you some fresh air would help, but now you're cold. Maybe we should go back inside...."
"No," Purim said firmly, staying him with a hand on his arm. "I...just want to be left alone out here for a while."
No, don't push me away again, Purim. I can help you. I can. "Purim." He sat down beside her, leaning against the tree as he was prone to. "I'm...sorry...so sorry I made you watch those veedios. Seeing all that carnage couldn't have been good for you. I was inconsiderate, not acting at all like a good friend should. I was-."
"That wasn't why I asked you to go!"
Randi was shocked by her fierce interruption. Then he saw her face soften and she covered her eyes with the heels of her hands. "Then...then why did you want me out of your life?"
Purim scrambled to her feet and sobbed one word. One name. "Dyluck!" And though Randi made a grab for her arm to keep her from running off into the darkness, he was left only with her mourning band. Black and bleak. Of course, Randi thought disdainfully. Always Dyluck.