Taking a calming breath, Niren carefully extricates himself from Chel lest she notice him shuddering in disgust from prolonged contact with her. To avoid suspicion, he opens the door to the Student Council room and allows her to go in first, very naturally playing the gallant gentleman when he would really rather be leading her to the inside of a prison cell.
"After you, my love," he says, just as gentle and loving as before, with the same amount of emotion behind it. Namely, none since it was forced then and feigned now.
Chel is pleased by his act, none the wiser, and happily thanks him before going inside. They're met with a chorus of greetings from the rest of the Student Council, all of whom had been sent back before Niren and Chel had confronted Atris - what he realizes now was an unconscious move on his part to keep his friends out of Chel's schemes as much as possible. It was as much as he could do, hypnotized as he was.
The room is like any other club room in a school but with stone and wood in place of tile or plywood. There are mahogany tables and high-backed, red leather chairs that usually serve as the workplace for the Student Council as they go over their massive amounts of paperwork but that have been rearranged for this end of year make-shift party and topped with silk table cloths and elegant silver dishware and cutlery. His friends had been setting it up as a surprise for Chel while she and Niren had attended the gala in the main hall with the rest of their peers.
After returning the greetings, Chel makes a beeline for the center table, which is covered in sweets and pastries that Niren had known she favored and requested specially for her. She oohs and ahhs over the spread before turning around and beaming at him. "This all looks so delicious, Niren! You did this for me?" She asks, expectant.
Because the situation demands it, Niren confirms, "Just for you."
"You didn't have to! I would have been fine with just a few cakes," she demurs, her humbleness never seeming more like an act than now as her eyes gleam with satisfaction and greed.
Niren is saved from replying by a loud, derisive scoff.
He looks to its source and finds Elliot Emberguard, a character of little note in the novel but a man who plays a significant role in Niren's life as both his Guardian Knight and dearest friend.
In the future that could have been - and never will be - Elliot died. His death was mentioned only in passing and with scant few details.
"Prince Niren's guard dog finally bit off more than he could chew. Died on a mission to the border. Don't know what kind of monster could take him out."
"Hmm. He was a good man, but he was also fiercely loyal to the Prince. It's a shame that Emberguard couldn't be used, but at least that's one less obstacle to face when we take his master down."
"Right. Damn shame, though. We could have used that kind of fire power."
And that was it.
As a reader, he'd quickly forgotten Elliot because he had played the silent sentinel whenever he was in front of Atris, whose point of view the entire novel was written in, likely because she was the enemy, and he had wanted to show a united front, even if he hadn't liked Chel. He hadn't been particularly memorable, just one of the many minor characters who had never contributed anything to the plot and had died inconsequentially as well.
The lack of details hadn't bothered him before, but now, it grates. Elliot Emberguard is not "just" anything, and not knowing how he might potentially die is nearly as bad as the knowledge that Niren almost definitely had a hand in it, was the reason he was even targeted.
After all, Elliot is fiercely loyal to him. He believes he owes Niren a debt and intends to repay it with his life. He's also wary of everyone close to or attempting to be close to Niren. There have been enough nobles hoping to gain favor and assailants hired to dispose of him over the years that Elliot has good reason to be so on guard.
If Chel could not control him, it is no surprise to Niren that she would dispose of him.
Discreetly, he checks Elliot for Chel's influence, and to his relief, he finds no trace of her. Elliot's fierce-vibrant-red aura is entirely free of any magic save his own.
Niren had expected it, planned for it even (insomuch as the bare threads he is attempting to weave together with so little time and information can be called a plan), but the confirmation is nonetheless a weight off his chest, a good turn of fortune he had desperately needed to stave off the despair and heartbreak and helplessness hammering into him with every new discovery, every revelation.
Not just because his plans hinged on Elliot's cooperation, either. Even before there was a very real possibility of his allies being bewitched and turned against him, if he were to count on one hand the people he trusts with both his life and his secrets, he would still have fingers to spare. Add mind control to the equation, and Elliot is the only person Niren knew - had suspected - who had never succumbed to Chel's trickery in that other future.
"You've dropped enough 'hints' about wanting exactly this when you came back today that even I knew what kind of filling you wanted in each pie," Elliot reminds her, irritably. "Don't pretend like you're surprised."
Ever the actress, Chel frowns, eyes big and dewy, pretty face the picture of a bullied little girl. "Sir Elliot," she says with a tremble in her sweet voice, "I don't know what gave you that impression, but I am sorry for whatever I did that made you think so little of me."
"There's no need to apologize to a brute like him," Federick Flintswift says, as serious and stern as ever but displaying once again a noticeable soft spot for Chel and her alone. His grass green eyes glare reproachfully at Elliot.
It is a blow to find him as thoroughly bewitched as Niren was but not particularly shocking. He can think of no other reason his friend who is such a stickler for rules and etiquette would so staunchly support a woman who flaunts them flagrantly. He, at least, was able to turn on Chel at some point, meaning Niren is not the only one who is capable of breaking free.
"I'm sure he didn't mean anythin' by it, Fed," another voice speaks up - Dystes Dirgewood. Towering over the rest of them like some great oak, he provides much needed calm and stability to a situation that might otherwise devolve into yet more bickering with a kind smile that reaches his eyes. "You know how El gets when he has to leave His Highness unattended."
Federick shakes his head and doesn't argue. Not even he is immune to Dystes' gentle dissuading, and Niren has seen him condescend to his own father. Inexplicably, Niren is reminded of the nickname given to Dystes by fans: DadDys or Dadwood, an affectionate epithet calling attention to his tendency to act like the Student Council's collective father.
Niren's lips twitch as he holds back a laugh.
His amusement fizzles out quite abruptly when Niren finds he is the same as Federick. Feeling Chel's horrid pink magic entwined so deeply with Dys' gentle green is as like to nails on a chalkboard, as viscerally unpleasant and screaming of wrongness, lack of wellness, as an oozing infection or the most vile disease.
"I'm his Guardian Knight. 'Course it pisses me off when I can't even do my job," Elliot says, riled up again just thinking about it, distracting Niren from his guilt and horror. That Elliot was sidelined ostensibly because of Chel is likely the bulk of his anger over the issue.
"Nothing in the GK guidebook says you have to hover over him twenty-four seven like some kind of growling gargoyle," Miloq Marshspark butts in, stoking the fire because he loves to watch it burn and cheerfully ignoring the exasperated look Dys sends him in response. He waggles his eyebrows as he leers, "Maybe His Highness wants some alone time with the little lady."
Flustered, Chel glances at Niren and then hastily denies it. "No, that's not it! We were just-!"
"Breaking things off with the old flame, so you could finally begin your fairy tale romance of the century, right?" Miloq finishes for her, laughing when she turns cherry red in embarrassment.
(Would he be able to laugh, to tease her so, if he knew his feelings of fondness for her were mere fabrication, forced upon him?
No, he would be just as angry and humiliated as Niren, just as murderous.
Niren tears his senses away from evidence of Miloq's unnatural state, clamps firmly down upon his desperation to tell him of it, to let them know. It would do him no good. Anything he says might get back to Chel, and as aforementioned, Niren cannot fall under her spell again. Or all will be lost.)
Reminded of the occasion Chel and Niren had just retreated from, Dystes turns a troubled smile on Niren and asks, "How did it go?"
Terribly, he thinks.
Remembering Atris' reaction to Niren choosing Chel over her once and for all feels like ripping his own heart out. Like gifting it to someone he knows won't treat it well, still-beating, and watching her crush it beneath her heel. Like living on anyway, with blood and viscera leaking out of him, in agony, and never knowing relief.
It doesn't even matter that it wasn't his fault, or that Atris has surely awakened her own memories at this point and must have other things on her mind. He hurt her. Publicly humiliated her. Cast aspersions on her character and shame upon her house.
Niren has known from a very young age that, as Crown Prince, his words carried weight. If he so much as frowns while eating a leg of lamb at a particular stall, news that the proprietor was attempting to poison him with rotten goods would spread that afternoon, and it's entirely possible that it would be shut down within a day. Expressing his interest in, say, exchanging his draconian gauntlets for phoenix would see a boom in phoenix feathers and its subsequent armor being sold, as his people tried desperately to imitate him, grasp some small piece of royalty, of splendor, and hold it close.
The common folk believe almost anything he says, and the nobles will follow his lead, even if only for their own ends. Niren has proclaimed Atris a villain, so a villain she must be. Who cares for truth when fiction is so delectably, tantalizingly sweet?
Because of him, her reputation might never recover. In the original novel, it hadn't, and it led to a life of misery and an excruciating death. Once Atris transmigrated, she was able to turn things around after a lot of hard work and turmoil, and in the end, Niren was the one to perish. But she still suffered.
Now, Niren is the new variable. He has answered her vain hope. He has regained enough sense to feel regret. Gods, but does he regret. It's swirling around in his chest, glass in a blender, his heart under a heel. A gaping hole where self-loathing lies. As well as remorse. Guilt. So, so much guilt. And grief.
How did it go?
Terribly, he thinks, and so he is trying very hard not to.
"It went well," Niren actually says, words click clacking on a keyboard, and if he lies on the internet, it's not real, right? Is it any different when his lips speak words he doesn't mean while his heart cries? "As well as can be expected," he amends, when Dys seems unconvinced.
"I still can't believe Atris would do such things," he says. He smiles, sympathetic but sad, and explains, "Not that I'm calling either of you a liar! I know you have evidence and witnesses. But still…" He droops a bit, like an overgrown puppy. If he had a tail, it would surely be just as limp.
Mouth a thin line, Federick finishes for him, "Lady Cloudbarrow was the epitome of a noblewoman. It is truly a shame that she allowed her hallowed status to taint her worldview." He sniffs, nose curling up in disgust, and it's easy to forget that Federick was closest to Atris after Niren. He's always admired Atris and greatly enjoyed her quiet company when Niren, Dys, and Miloq got too rough and rowdy during play as children and during training later, as they grew older.
It hit him pretty hard when he "found out" Atris was bullying lesser nobles and the school's lone commoner behind their backs and - on one occasion - threatening physical harm. It doesn't help that Chel reminds him of his estranged mother. A comparison Niren is sure Chel played into when weaving her web of lies.
"Eh, Atty's always been a little uptight. Makes sense she'd blow off some steam somehow," Miloq chimes in, unconcerned. "We get to beat each other with sticks, but what can non-combatants do?" He shrugs, leaning back in his chair 'til it sits precariously on two legs. "They take it out on whoever they can. My mom made one of the maids cry the other day. Right after a fight with the old man. Hell, my uncle has had a servant whipped over cold crab puffs."
Federick grimaces. "Yes, well. While we cannot control the actions of every noble, especially in the privacy of their own homes, it is behavior unbecoming of the future Queen."
"Right," Elliot says, flatly. "Sure. Can't have an improper Queen. Just one who's called the Crown Prince by name since their first meeting."
A petite, unblemished hand clutches at his sleeve. Tears bead fine, blonde eyelashes. Chel hangs her head, abashed, and it takes everything in him not to tear his arm from her grip and push her away.
"Elliot," Niren warns. No matter that he agrees, if he doesn't defend her here, Chel will notice something is off.
Elliot makes a face but backs down. Chel gifts him a pleased little smile that makes repulsion ripple through him. He reflexively checks his magic and finds nothing. The fear doesn't abate. Perhaps it never will. Inflicting this uncertainty upon him is the worst kind of violence.
He breathes in, out, in, out. Keeps his composure because a prince cannot show weakness. Forces the stiff muscles in his face into a perfect smile he has practiced in a mirror a thousand times. Speaks with a measured calm that gives away nothing of his inner panic when he says, "My fiance may call me whatever she likes."
He means Atris, but Chel will interpret it differently. That's all that matters.
As expected, Chel lights up. "Niren!" She gasps, looping her arm around his again, a noose tightening around his neck. He simply smiles at her, indulgent, and she giggles. "You haven't even asked me yet," she points out, subtle as a train wreck.
"It would be in poor taste to declare a new engagement so soon after breaking off the old one," Federick answers for him, apologetic beneath stern reprimand. "People would talk. Miss Chel would be the target of unsavory rumors, and it might even call into question the validity of your claims against Lady Cloudbarrow."
Not that all that isn't happening already anyway. It's just that no one has been brave or stupid enough to insinuate anything within hearing range of the Student Council, so Chel theoretically should have been sheltered from it.
She absolutely already knows.
When it seems like Chel will insist, Niren brings a lock of her pretty blonde hair to his lips, pastes on an expression of pure adoration, looks right into pools of clear violet as he tells her, quietly but firmly, "My proposal to you, my heart, will be a grand spectacle for all the kingdom to witness, so they will know without question that my love for you is as expansive as the sea and as enduring as the hope for a brighter tomorrow."
He kisses her hair and lets it fall. Chel watches him with bated breath, entranced.
"They will see the look on my face and know what it is to love absolutely, without end. And they will cast their gaze upon you, marvel that you are, and there will be no doubt that you are a fitting wife to whom any man would be lucky to be married. They will know envy, and I will be the happiest man in the seven kingdoms."
"Niren, I…" Chel starts to say, almost breathless, but he isn't done yet.
He gently grasps her chin and leans forward until Chel is all that he can see, until their lips are but a scant few inches apart, until she forgets how to speak entirely, and he asks softly enough that only she can hear it, "To that end, I should like to wait. Would you permit me this small selfishness, Chel?"
She whispers, "Yes…!" as if she didn't say it quickly enough, it would burst out of her. Her face is red, and her chest heaves as her lungs work overtime to compensate for her flustered heart.
"Excellent!" He smiles brightly as he steps back and away from her, pretending not to see her shock and disappointment as he turns to pull out a chair for her at the table. "Now, come! You must try the Crème Brûlée."
It takes a moment, but she sits, gingerly, and accepts the plate he makes her with obvious anticipation. "Thank you!" She says, apparently having gotten over the momentary dismay in the face of every treat the royal chef has to offer.
Taking that as their cue, the others swoop in to make their own plates, no doubt starving as it is well past their usual supper. Besides the one in the middle designated for desserts, there are two other tables on each wall laden with more savory fare - chicken, roast, turkey; potatoes, dressing, pasta; as well as a salad bar, fruit, and a myriad of drinks.
Niren and Chel had filled their bellies on honey ham and mead before the disastrous condemnation event, so all that is left for them is dessert.
As Chel goes about trying everything, he makes the appropriate agreeable noises to each and every evaluation. But he does not sit down, and he does not eat. He vividly remembers Chel's magic threading through his own, the sickly sweet taste of it, like manufactured kindness. Like bright splatters of color on a poisonous flower. It reeks of beautiful danger, of twisted masquerade. These confections are far too similar. His stomach would revolt.
(Even sugar has been ruined for him. He wonders if that is poetic, if someone somewhere is having a good laugh at his expense. He can find morbid humor in it, in the irony, but mostly, it just makes him feel tired.)
"Not hungry, Your Highness?" Elliot asks, ambling over to stand at his shoulder after having eaten his fill.
Niren glances at Chel, but she seems invested in her conversation with Federick, who has occupied the seat across from her with his own small plate of desserts, and Dystes, who has claimed the chair next to her with his third turkey leg.
"I seem to have lost my appetite," he admits, wry.
Elliot's brow creases in concern. Niren doesn't often admit to weakness. "How are you holding up? Really?" He asks, getting to the point. "I know it couldn't have been easy. Lady Atris was your best friend. You've known her practically your whole life. There's no way you come out of that kinda thing not feeling some kinda way."
"I've been better," Niren says, sobering at yet another reminder of just how royally he's screwed things up with Atris. He can only pray to Lady Katalina that Atris will be willing to listen when Niren attempts to make it up to her.
Because he will make it up to her. He's already read a reality where Atris persevered and triumphed over Chel. It's only right that he take advantage of his unique insight and help her end things much more quickly this time - and with less strife.
Looking pained at the thought of Niren hurting, Elliot steps closer and not-quite whispers, "If you want to end this little get-together and go clear your head, say the word, and I'll make it happen. No one'd be surprised if I ruined another party."
Affection overtakes the cool calculation he has been using to fight off inconvenient emotions since he first awoke, suffusing him with much needed warmth, and Niren can't help but smile at his comrade's unflinching support and willingness to sacrifice for him. "That won't be necessary," he says, achingly sincere for the first time tonight, "but I thank you for the offer, my friend."
Niren wishes to escape Chel's scrutiny, yes, but even worse than playing out this pretend relationship with her would be turning her attention toward someone she has already successfully murdered twice in previous iterations of their reality. He would sooner throw himself on his own sword than knowingly push Elliot toward his death a third time. He can endure a little discomfort if it means Niren is in the line of fire rather than any of his friends.
"If you're sure," he reluctantly acquiesces, rust red eyes scouring Niren's face for any hint of what lay beneath, a sign that help is wanted. An endeavor doomed to fail. Niren is too practiced at controlling his expression and Elliot, too straightforward to notice anything that might slip through the cracks.
"I wouldn't mind a spar, later," Niren says, nonchalant. "In the usual place."
Elliot's eyes widen, slightly, but while subtleties are often lost on him, he can, at times, exercise discretion. (Otherwise, he could hardly qualify for a job shadowing royalty.) Almost immediately, he covers the tell with a joke. "I'm shocked you'd even have time, lover boy. If Master ever caught wind of you skimping on training for a girl, she'd kick your ass back into shape."
An altogether different chill ghosts over him as he imagines the unfortunately all too likely scenario. "You mustn't let her find out," Niren commands, heedless of Elliot's humor at his expense. He feels no shame in admitting his abject fear of Knight Captain Ewing. There exists not a single knight who does not tremble at the mention of her training regimen, and if there is one, it will not be for long. He can scarcely think of how much more terrible her punishment would be.
Thus, he insists, "Now that graduation is upon us, I will make time for training. There's no need to bring Sir Fran into this."
"I don't know. She did ask me to keep you on your toes…"
"Then she'll be displeased with you as well," Niren says, desperate.
"Alright, alright, I won't! Ha! You should see your face!" Elliot laughs, loud and unencumbered, and it transforms his harsh features into something vividly bright and alive, a firefly carving out a place of light in the dark, a wildfire that won't ever be stamped out.
Despite everything, Niren finds himself smiling with him. "That was mean-spirited," he complains, half-hearted.
Elliot grins, baring his teeth. "Payback for sticking me with the decorating committee."
"As if you would have enjoyed the ball," he scoffs, knowingly. Elliot loathes 'dressing up and prancing around like an idiot', and he would have had to do both if he went if only to save face for Niren. He hasn't cared about the Emberguard name since his father died, but he takes his position as the Crown Prince's Guardian Knight seriously. Everything he does is reflected on Niren, so he is only ever unrestrained at times like this, in private. "Besides, Atris was your friend too."
You shouldn't have to witness such a scene, goes unsaid.
Understanding flickers across his face, followed swiftly by a tangled mix of confusion and pain. Elliot scowls before throwing back the wine in his hand and setting the empty glass down with unnecessary force. "Yeah, well. That's the keyword, isn't it? She was."
Niren smiles tightly, then looks away, out the window and at the dense forest nearly consumed by the encroaching darkness of the night. The unspoken sentiment Elliot does not pick up on, a carefully guarded motive Chel had not discovered when Niren had pitched the idea to send their friends back first, is this: It would have only hurt her more.
Under Chel's iron control, he was a fool of a prince, a disgrace of a man, a purveyor of his own destruction, but- Some small part of him was still looking out for his loved ones, in whatever ways he could, however ultimately insignificant it all turned out to be. He didn't simply give up. He was still fighting.
If he could persevere then, there is no reason he cannot do so now. Not with his trusty Knight at his back, Atris soon to be at his side, and a brand new future to carve out of the unmarred rock right in front of him.