"-believe your lies!" Someone shouts, righteously - and as is often the case when one is feeling righteous enough to shout about it - condemningly.
It takes him a beat too long to realize the one shouting was him.
He considers the scene around him - the cute girl at his side making a pitiable and wronged expression, the beautiful girl in front of him sporting an angry, indignant, hurt expression, and the many people to their right watching all of this happen with shock and confusion and no little glee.
Everyone is in vaguely European clothes, practically Medieval dresses and suits which seem to be expensive and flashy and successfully showing off their status and wealth. Nobles, he surmises (and doesn't think to wonder why he's so certain), taking into account the grand hall they're standing in as well as all the lavish decorations and finery. A party for nobles.
...Why is he here? How is he here?
Before he can voice the question, the angry woman in front of him responds, tone sharp enough to cut, "You're a fool, Niren. You chose wrong. I hope you regain enough sense to regret it." She shoots him one last disdainful look before she turns on her heel and strides out of the room, the crowd of spectators parting like the sea to let her through.
He has more important things to worry about, though.
His name isn't-
"Come on, Niren," the girl at his side coaxes, tugging gently but insistently on his arm. "Let's forget about her, okay? I want to try those desserts you spoke of earlier!" She flashes him a sweet, innocent smile, but-
"Of course, Chel," he hears himself say, disgustingly affectionate. "Whatever you want."
With that, he leads her away, a besotted look on his face. Or rather, his body moves of its own accord without any of his input, as if he's at the mercy of some unseen puppeteer, following in the other girl's wake with much less fanfare.
He tries to stop or pull away from the girl on his arm, to open his mouth and say something, anything, but he can only watch on, a spectator in his own(?) body.
He's not prone to panic, even in this kind of incomprehensible situation, so he chooses instead to be productive. Since his body is on autopilot anyway, he allows himself to zone out and properly mull over the flood of information - in the form of memories - that had assailed him at the mention of his name now that he's not too bewildered to think straight.
Apparently, his name is Niren. Niren Nightsteel, Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Wresthaven and - perhaps more importantly - a villain in a villainess transmigration story who meets an untimely end via an offscreen death for siding with the real villainess, the heroine, and condemning the noble villainess main character and transmigrator for crimes she hadn't even committed.
Calling him a villain is giving him too much credit, however. Niren had remained Chel's tool unto the very end, going so far as to sacrifice himself for her in a futile attempt to give her more time to escape when her treasonous deeds came to light.
He'd never thought of Niren as anything but a fool, one easily manipulated by any pretty face with an appropriately poignant sob story, and he'd been satisfied that such a fool had gotten his just desserts.
As much as he'd enjoyed it, the novel was not without its faults, and by its end, like most in its genre, there were plot holes left unfilled and loose ends untied. One such was none other than Prince Niren's almost mindless devotion to the heroine, Chel, even despite the fact that she had scarcely tried to hide her treachery, near the end.
For a prince - the Crown Prince - who professed to love and honestly seemed to want to protect his country, allying with and actively defending the woman attempting to destroy it wasn't the smartest move. And he was supposed to be smart. He was supposed to be brilliant.
He graduated top of his class at the Academy. His swordsmanship was said to have impressed the Knight Captain, a woman with notoriously harsh and almost impossible to meet standards. His peers loved him, and the people adored him, were so proud of him, and wholeheartedly approved of him as his father's successor.
He was Wresthaven's darling, basically, and then he went and threw it all away the moment he fell for the heroine.
But why? If he were so smart and so capable, why would he disregard absolutely everything - everything he had worked towards his whole life; his good reputation, his right to the throne, his own family - in order to be with her?
It had been hotly debated by fans ever since Niren's first appearance, especially since the author had never given any insight one way or another. Was it just bad writing? An overused trope - man falls madly in love with woman to the point of losing all reason? Was Niren's press just so thorough and outstanding that they were able to pull the wool over everyone's eyes until he did something big enough - bad enough - that it could no longer be covered up?
He'd chalked it up to a necessary evil of the genre. Transmigration novels - and ones about nobles in particular - are often fraught with one-dimensional villains whose entire purpose is to do evil things, draw the reader's ire, and get their comeuppance later on, usually at the hands of the main character/transmigrator.
The character Niren Nightsteel had seemed a textbook case, your standard cannon fodder. Personally, he wouldn't have minded a more nuanced take on it, but it's also not something he was hung up over. It was what it was, he'd thought.
Ironically, horrifically, it wasn't.
For all intents and purposes, he is Niren, now. He remembers being Niren, thanks to the nineteen years of memories crammed inside his head. So he knows without a shadow of a doubt that the original Niren - novel Niren, as it were - had earned his status and recognition as the apple of Wresthaven's eye. He was everything his golden reputation had made him out to be and more. He was the ideal prince with a heart of gold, almost to the point of being a stereotype.
(And yes, acknowledging as much about himself is very strange and mortifying, but he's not in any position to balk at generalizations when he's quite literally a character in a novel, possibly written to be this way.
But that way lies existential crises, and he's trying to make a point.)
He was good, and had he any choice in the matter, he would never have allowed any of Chel's plans to come to fruition, much less have defended her and enthusiastically enacted them himself.
That's the kicker, though, isn't it. Niren never had any choice.
As the heroine, Chel of course just had to be extra super special in some way. She absolutely must have something to set her apart from the "other" girls and perhaps explain away the love and adulation she - as the heroine - should so rightly receive.
In her case, she possessed rare magics.
Her white magic - that is, healing magic - is what got her into the Academy in the first place. Not only does she have the ability to use white magic, but she also has large mana reserves, allowing any magic she casts to be more powerful by a large margin and making her the most powerful healer in the kingdom, possibly even the continent.
Since she is a heroine who doubles as a villain, however, that was obviously not the only magic she inherited. Heavily hinted at throughout the story, it was only revealed in the very last chapter when the king called for his guards to apprehend her, and Chel was forced to drop the doe-eyed, shrinking waif persona to fight them off and try to escape with it that she was able to conjure dark magic, as well. Specifically, curses and jinxes. Entirely offensive spells, made different in that they're powered by darkness and thus more powerful - and lethal - than the usual purely elemental spells.
Two of the most rare magics in the entire world weren't enough for this villainous heroine, however.
Right here and now, Niren can confirm that Chel possesses the aptitude for a third magic, a forbidden magic. A magic that corrupts the soul and taints the psyche. A magic of the most heinous sort, short of outright murder.
Mind control magic.
That was how she was able to get Niren so thoroughly under her heel - and keep him there. He was forced to go against everything he believed in by a hateful, despicable girl, and absolutely no one ever realized it was anything other than his own decision. Niren flew high and fell hard and was destined to be known throughout history as a foolish prince who turned his back on his kingdom for a woman who only used him for her own ends, an unwilling puppet all the while.
Now that he's aware of it, he can look back through Niren's memories and pinpoint the moment he first came under Chel's control.
It was their very first meeting. As president of the Student Council, it fell to him to greet the new commoner student and acclimate her to the school. During her introduction, the moment their eyes met - it was then that she cast the first spell upon him, a harmless, weak little thing.
She compelled him to find her likable. Not to the point he found her irresistible. She simply improved his first impression of her, just a little. Just a bit above his initial cordial indifference, enough so that his perception of her was very slightly altered.
Anything stronger - such as commanding he fall in love with her or listen to her every whim - and he'd have noticed immediately and shaken it off. He'd have seen Chel for what she was and had her arrested for not only practicing forbidden magic but attempting to bewitch a member of royalty. That he's the crown prince would add to the severity of the charges, and as such, the only fate awaiting her would be a swift execution.
None of her plots would go forward. Niren would marry his fiance Atris and ascend the throne, and under their combined rule, Wresthaven would thrive.
Had life been fair, things would have gone that way. How unfortunate that life rarely is.
What did happen is this: Chel continued to ensnare Niren with innocuous commands, and gradually, Niren became more and more malleable, more susceptible as Chel's magic wore away at his mental defenses, much the same way water wears away at stone. She was able to compel him to do bigger and more questionable acts as his resistance waned until eventually...there was nothing he would not do for her.
Or at least, he can assume as much. Before he took over - or would that be, before he remembered his past life? - Chel had only gotten as far as convincing Niren to break off his engagement with Atris and to publicly accuse her of harassment and lording her status over the lesser nobles and the school's only commoner. Even then, it had taken months of staged arguments, false witness accounts, and Chel's frankly pretty bad acting for Niren to finally believe her and take action.
He says "before" because as of now, Chel no longer has any control over him. The moment he "became" Niren, he must have escaped her influence. Mind control only works on the unwary. He suddenly found himself in a strange place with no explanation and no guarantee of safety, so of course he was guarded. His magic must have responded to his confusion and vigilance and begun the process of purging the foreign magic hiding within his own, all within moments of his waking.
Unfortunately, that does not mean he is safe from further attempts. What makes this magic so insidious is that if it worked once, it will work again. Niren has had his mental defenses broken irreparably, and he will forever and always be vulnerable to mind control from anyone - not just Chel. He will carry the scars of her careless cruelty with him always, never truly knowing if his actions are his own or the designs of some arbitrator, if he is actually free or if he will die unknowing and ultimately suffer the same fate as the original Niren anyway, despite his best efforts to to the contrary.
Already, the terror of being controlled again is a lead weight in the pit of his stomach, bile in the back of his throat, cold sweat on his nape. The only reason his hands do not shake is because he is still stuck playing out this opening scene, robotically walking along like an actor in a play, not able to so much as blink on his own.
(The only reason he does not freak out about this is because he remembers from the novel that Atris had also been forced to go through the motions during the Broken Engagement event and had only regained control once it had ended. It is not Chel this time; there is no trace of her magic left in his system.
That it is the novel itself - or some omnipotent being - pulling his strings is hardly a comfort, however, because the question remains: if they could do it this once, they could do it again, could they not?
He could, with some effort, defeat Chel. She lives and breathes and bleeds as he does and will die the same as any other human. He would not even begin to know how to fight an invisible, possibly intangible enemy, much less know how to kill it.
...Another crisis to table for later.)
He cannot, under any circumstance, allow Chel to know that he is no longer under her spell - not until he ascertains the state of his allies. Anyone under the thrall will be in the same predicament, but if he is able to inform someone who is free-
He will have Chel's head roll before the sun is set.
To that end, he must gain intel.
As Chel chatters away at him incessantly, still hanging onto him and leading him toward the Student Council room, he keeps up the facade of listening to her all while carefully, unnoticeably spreading out his senses and searching for Chel's snakelike essence threaded through the students and faculty they pass on the way, trying to find out just how many she's managed to sink her claws into in just half a year. Luckily, he is allowed to do this much.
The number he ends up with by the time they actually make it to their destination is a worrying one. More than half, and that was only the people nearby. It was mostly males, some even grown men, and he'd been expecting it, but it really puts into perspective just how powerful Chel could have been had Atris not stopped her, how powerful she could be if she isn't stopped now.
His parents were - are - surely her end goal. As a commoner, albeit a slightly significant one, Chel knows she has no way of interacting with the king and queen beyond formal events and the like, so she must be biding her time, waiting until she schemes her way into marrying Niren and thus gains access to his parents on a more regular basis.
There is no way his mother and father are not affected already. Niren had introduced them months ago, after several dates, and due to Niren's insistence and a good first impression, they had both become taken with her. Since then, Chel has gossiped over tea with his mother every week and discussed politics with his father whenever he dropped by to say hello. She has had ample opportunity.
That his parents allowed Niren to make a mockery of the Cloudbarrows and himself - and by extension, them - at this celebration thus thoroughly dissolving the promised alliance and any goodwill between their families is evidence enough that Chel has them, too, well in hand.
The Cloudbarrows have been loyal retainers to the Nightsteels for centuries, ever since Wresthaven was first established after the Second Great War by his great, great grandfather, the first king, Nodasa, with the aid of his General Persef Cloudbarrow, later named Duke of Altrea.
They have guarded the Northern border for centuries, and their military strength rivals that of the royal family. That's not even to mention their political power. Duke Cloudbarrow leads the Northern nobles with an iron fist, and even the Southern party defers to him when it comes to all things war.
Niren's marriage to Atris was supposed to consolidate their strength, to firmly bring the Northern nobles under the royal family's - under Niren's - influence under the guise of solidifying the bond of their ancestors.
Of course, that's impossible now that Niren has gone and broken the engagement without so much as a warning and tarnished their good name while he was at it. They'll be lucky if this one act doesn't lead to civil war. The only possible explanation for his parents allowing this is Chel's mind control.
Even his siblings were not able to escape her grasp. His younger brother Colin and sister Lily are fellow members of the Student Council and have spent almost as much time with Chel as Niren himself. They have both publicly and privately expressed their approval of Chel as his intended, even despite his engagement to Atris.
As of right now, Niren is the only member of the Royal Family not under hypnosis, and any slight mistake on his part could land him right back in Chel's control.
He can't let that happen. Whether in his past life or this one, he has no intention of letting the people he loves suffer and die when he can do something about it. He has people counting on him, friends and family and an entire kingdom, and he refuses to let them down.
Besides, having been subject to it himself and knowing now of the horrific future in store for him had he not shaken it off, he's not going to leave anyone else at the mercy of such wicked, vile sorcery as mind control. It's wrong and violating having something as intrinsic to being human as free will taken away. It feels uncomfortably like betraying oneself, like he let her in or wanted it on some level since he didn't even put up a fight, even though he couldn't have possibly have known to fight it.
He won't let her create any more victims or spread her influence any further. Simply the thought of one of his siblings being used in such a way - or his mother - sends protective rage coursing through him. Knowing that they are at this moment enslaved to her will makes it very hard for him not to simply end Chel here and now. Even the knowledge that it would take far more than one sneak attack to kill her and that he would invariably be charmed again before he could finish the deed does little to sway him.
Having to actually strain against the impulse brings to his attention that he's finally in control of his own actions again. The scene has ended. The script is no more. Now, it is time to act on his own terms.