Chapter 11
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Like he'd thought, he couldn't sit around forever. Over a week later on a Monday, Cale fell flat on his face on Magdalena's bed and let out quite possibly the biggest sigh of his life. And Cale had sighed a lot.

He rolled onto his back and stared up at Magdalena's amused face. "I regret everything," he solemnly told her.

She let out a loud bark of laughter. Julius sat down next to him on the bed and Cale gratefully leaned against him, resting his head on the teenager's shoulder. He exhaled softly and basked in the warmth that Julius provided. Soaking up the affection that Julius so freely gave him, Cale took a deep breath and sat up straight.

Magdalena was sitting by a table on the far right of the room. It was round, with sturdy wooden chairs with soft-looking cushions on them. Magdalena looked elegant where she sat, her short hair falling freely around her face, her eyes focused on the pastries that laid on the large silver plate in the middle of the table. Cale stood up and walked over to the table with Julius following close behind. He sat down across from Magdalena on one of the four chairs, pulling out another one without thinking about it. Julius sat down on it, pushing the plate of pastries toward Cale.

Cale nodded at him and picked up three pastries that looked delicious, putting them on his own purple china plate. He then grabbed the glass pitcher of cold water and poured it in his teacup. Magdalena frowned at that, "You're really not gonna have tea?"

"It's not to my taste," he explained. Nibbling on one of the chocolate pastries, he tried to remember if he had ever seen anything like it in his old world.

Magdalena didn't say anything more on the subject, instead choosing to pick a few pastries with a delicate hand. Julius waited until Magdalena nodded at him before he grabbed six pastries (Cale supposed that they resembled cookies and cupcakes, but he wouldn't call them that) and put them on his own, equally purple, plate. Staring at the way that Julius looked pleased with himself, Cale's heart jumped in his chest.

He smiled brightly. "Can you eat all those?"

Julius shrugged. "If I can't, I'll take them back with me."

Cale nodded. His smile dimmed slightly when he shifted his gaze to Magdalena. She smiled back at him over her teacup. Humming, Cale bit into his first pastry, feeling it almost melting in his mouth. His eyes widened at the sensation and he swallowed it down easily, staring at the chocolate pastry that was in his hand. Quickly, he took another bite.

With his hand over his mouth, he chewed and swallowed it quickly, delighting in the taste. In between bites, he said, "This is really good."

Julius agreed, "They are. You bought them?" he asked Magdalena.

Magdalena shook her head. "My fiancé sent me them. I can't possibly finish them all before they go bad, so I thought I'd have a little get-together. If you're going to marry Calla, we should get to known one another. After all, I was once supposed to marry him."

"Yes, I know," Julius said. He frowned and stared suspiciously at Magdalena.

She reminded Cale of a shark when she smiled at Julius, "So, then, why did you ask for an engagement when you've only known each other for a handful of months?"

"Because I am in love with him," Julius stated.

"But you do understand why you seem suspicious, right? You're younger than him by four years, you're not the heir of your family, you used to dislike and mock him. You followed Sayer around like a puppy." Magdalena took a sip of her tea and smiled gracefully at Julius, her eyes sharp as knives.

Julius' green eyes blazed. Harshly, he bit out, "I was an idiot. I know that. I asked for the engagement precisely so Calla and I could get to know each other and decide if we want to get married. I know he doesn't love me yet, but there's a chance. All I need is a chance."

Cale dragged in a harsh breath. He stared at Julius' furious face, his frowning mouth and his furrowed eyebrows and his glinting eyes. The blond hair that hung loosely and framed his face, the sharp jaw and the sharper tongue. Cale felt something squeeze in his chest so tightly that he wondered if he was still breathing. Because, because—because Julius looked like he was ready to confess his love all over again. Hell, hadn't he practically just done that?

"We have plenty of time," Cale agreed. He held out his hand toward Julius and waited patiently. After a glance at his face, Julius took Cale's hand and held it tightly. A tingle spread in Cale's arm, up toward his elbow and to his shoulder. He licked his suddenly dry lips (he did that a lot, didn't he? Calla's lips were very dry, much more so than Cale's.), and squeezed Julius' hand in return. When he saw the slight widening to Julius' eyes and the way that they instantly softened, Cale's heart thundered in his chest.

Julius smiled softly at him. Cale had to force himself to look away from him, otherwise he feared he'd combust. Who knew, that might be possible in this world?

Magdalena finished her pastry and swallowed it before she said anything, making Cale sweat as he worried that she... well, he didn't know what. He was aware that they were moving incredibly fast. He was painfully aware of it. He worried and he agonized and he tried to justify it, but he couldn't.

Maybe it really was as Cale feared: maybe Julius was just using him to help Sayer get the Frosthaze lordship. Maybe Cale was simply latching on emotionally to him because he was lost and needed an anchor. Maybe these feelings weren't real—no, they were. But maybe they wouldn't last. Maybe this relationship was doomed; maybe, one day, he'd simply fall out of love with Julius.

But those were all maybes. They were possibilities, they were nightmares, they were fears. Right now, Cale felt like he lost his breath every time he looked at Julius. His heart beat so loudly that he could hear it. His hands were clammy yet he didn't want to let go of Julius' hand. If he'd had the ability to blush, he would have done so a thousand times over by now. Right now, Cale was in love with Julius. Right now, what he wanted was to be with him.

It was foolish. It was setting himself up for pain and heartbreak and who knew how many more nightmares. It was a disaster in his own making and he didn't care. He deserved to make this mistake. Here he was, stuck in another world and body and with every passing day, it became increasingly clear to him that he was never going home.

Being with Julius made him happy. And damn it at all to Hell, but he wanted it.

He interlaced his fingers with Julius' and said to Magdalena, "I know this could be a mistake. But it's a mistake I want to make."

Magdalena stared him straight in the eyes. Frowning, she searched his face for something. And even though he had no idea why, he found himself hoping that she would approve. That she would let him do this without any snide remarks, without a condescending attitude, without an "I told you so," just waiting to leave her lips. He didn't know why he cared for her opinion so much, he didn't think that they were close enough that her disapproval would change anything. But, still. Still.

Then she broke eye-contact with him and turned her gaze to the mellow pink wall behind him. "I'm not going to interfere," she said and straightened up in her seat. She looked over them both with cutting brown eyes and continued, "I only ask that you take your time. People can love each other, and still not be able to stand being in each others' presence. I don't want that to happen to you." She smiled ruefully at them.

Cale gulped. Nodding, he said, "Of course."

With that, it seemed the matter was dropped. Magdalena moved on to other topics, like the latest letters she had gotten from her little sister and her fiancé. She spoke passionately and at length how much she hated her history professor and how she couldn't wait for the Winter Holidays. Julius interjected with cutting remarks every now and then about this and that, and some of them even managed to make Magdalena smile.

Cale was helpless to interrupt them. It hadn't even occurred to him, but he'd never interacted with them both at the same time before, had he? It was always one or the other. That was narrow-minded of him: watching them slingshot verbal attacks at each other and shrug them off like they were soft feathers was—relaxing. It was strangely relaxing.

The holidays break started in two days. On Wednesday, they'd be leaving the castle for over two weeks, long enough to celebrate both the Winter Holidays and the New Year. It was funny, he supposed, that the dates were vertically identical with the Christian and Gregorian calendars from his original world when this was meant to be a fantasy world, but then again, 'Fire & Ice' was a book. A novel that someone wrote, that either the author made up, or they somehow transcribed the events of. Maybe they just didn't bother to think up a new calendar, or maybe the planets were parallels of each other — regardless, the familiar calendar was an anchor in an otherwise unfamiliar world. It was funny and unrealistic and some people would probably call it a plothole or a goof, but he didn't mind it.

The Winter Festival, and thus also the Royal Winter Ball, would take place on the twenty-third of December, the day of the Winter Solstice. The New Year was December thirty-first and then the first day of January would mark the start of a new year. To be precise, the seventy-second year of the Dawnmight Monarchy.

It would be nice, to have two weeks where he could catch up on sleep. No classes to rush to, no homework to complete in the dead of night while trying not to cry of frustration, no worry that he might get dragged into Sayer's protagonist influence and end up in the middle of the clusterfuck that was the plot of 'Fire & Ice'. He might even attend the Royal Winter Ball, just to get out of his own head and distract himself. He very badly needed a distraction from the constant knowledge that if he didn't graduate this year, he would soon be dead.

***

Mariana arranged a transport on the twentieth. The stately steel grey carriage was larger than the one he had ridden in with Julius to the town—at least two meters long and almost as wide—and it had enough room for him to lie down and attempt to sleep. He would be traveling with only a single bag of luggage, as he had been assured that everything he could need for the holidays was already present at the townhouse.

Instead of going to the countryside where the Frosthaze's manor was located, he would be going straight to the capital of Glaiz Gria. The entire holiday break would be spent there at the Frosthaze's townhouse, mostly because it would save a significant amount of travel time for the Royal Winter Ball, which would take place at the Royal Palace in the capital. From Aurelis Academy to the capital was a nearly five hours long carriage ride; from Aurelis Academy to the Frosthaze manor was a journey that took over fifty hours. Plainly put: if he went back to the Frosthaze's manor, he wouldn't be able to make it to the Royal Winter Ball.

And despite it all, he wanted to go. He knew that Sayer might be there, it hadn't been clear in the book as the event had been glossed over in a single paragraph which he took as a good sign. It meant that even if Sayer did attend, nothing outrageous or lethally dangerous had happened. Cale decided to bet on that.

It was nine in the morning when his carriage set off. He had hugged Julius and Magdalena goodbye, and both promised that he would see them at the ball. During the first two hours of the journey, he passed the time by reading. It was a tome that he had been allowed to borrow from the academy's library and he found that it was much more interesting than the table of contents would suggest. When he looked up again, it was nearly midday according to the sun almost at the highest point in the sky.

Cale couldn't read the time from the sun's position, but his pocket-watch corroborated the theory. It was closing in on half-past eleven, which meant that the journey was almost half-way over. Closing the book, he carefully put it back in his bag and took out the snack box that Magdalena had given him. It was more of the same pastries that her fiancé had sent her—she hadn't finished them all and apparently they were starting to go dry so she'd shoved them in his face and told him to eat them on the way. Meanwhile, Julius had given him drinks carefully packaged away.

The fact that they had gone out of their way in order to get him these things made him his fingers tingle. He smiled as he bit into the first pastry, drinking lots of water while eating it to combat the dryness of the pastry. It didn't make it any less tasty.

The water had been in his bag for hours and long since warmed up. Drinking lukewarm water was not his favorite thing, and so he used his ice magic to gently cool the water until it got pleasant enough to drink. This was, honestly, the most frequent use of his magic. He often ended up with lukewarm water while he was studying because he got distracted and forgot to drink it in time—at which point, he had had a revelation. Calla was an ice mage. It only made sense that he would be able to use this magic to cool water. Admittedly, it took a lot of control and Cale had frozen the whole thing into solid ice the first few times he'd tried it. But, eventually, he'd succeeded.

Laying down on the wide cushioned seat, he placed a soft pillow under his head and stared up at the ceiling of the carriage. He could feel his body swaying with the motions of the carriage; despite the fact that it was not nearly as severe as the carriage on their first date, this carriage still rattled as it moved over the uneven ground. If Calla had been prone to motion sickness, Cale would not have been happy right now. Luckily, that seemed to be one of the very few number of things that didn't plague him.

Well, if it had, Cale couldn't really see Mariana ever letting Calla attend Aurelis Academy in the first place.

He closed his eyes. Determined to ignore the carriage's rocking, he deliberately slowed his breathing as he tried to get some rest. His sleep had been odd lately, it wasn't to the point where he wasn't getting any rest at all, but he tended to wake up often from nightmares. Falling back asleep usually happened soon enough, but waking up two, three times a night wasn't good for his body. It protested loudly.

He counted in time with his breaths, ignoring the ache that came from lying on such an uncomfortable surface. Though it had been padded with thick cushions, it couldn't entirely block the sensation of the of carriage moving. It rippled through his body, jostling it in time with the carriage's motion.

But Cale would try. Even just closing his eyes for a while would certainly help—he was always squinting down at tiny letters in the light of flickering candle flames and weak oil lamps. It was an understatement to say that his eyes were under constant strain. It wouldn't surprise him if he'd need glasses in the future.

The thought made him smile. Needing glasses in the future implied that there would be a future for him to need them in. More and more lately, he'd found himself planning ahead, for what came after. After he graduated, after he moved away from this country, after he found a nice quaint house with no plot related qualities to live in. After he settled down and found a job and went on dates and maybe, just maybe, married Julius. It was a feeble thought that he tried to crush, because it raised his hopes. But the thought persisted, regardless.

"Is it enough?" he asked himself aloud. "To love someone? Can you built a marriage on that, even knowing that your love might be fleeing, might only last the blink of an eye? That you've only known each for months, that you don't even know if you can stand to live with this person?"

Yes, he wanted to say. Yes, it was. All that other stuff, it was things you learned. It was things you had to consciously do. You had to make the choice to get to know someone, you had to decide to not blind yourself. To look for their flaws and appreciate their strengths. To understand them, how they thought and looked at the world. Some things didn't need to be changed, but others did. You couldn't stay with a person that beat you or destroyed your self-confidence, but you couldn't demand that a person change their whole personality for you.

Ultimately, it came down to the fact that nothing was certain. It might not last. You might wake up one day and no longer be in love. You might realize that the person you married is no longer in front of you; that you're no longer the person you once were. In the grandness of the universe, nothing was infinite. Things changed and then they changed again just because.

Nothing stayed the same. Would you still make the choice to hope for the best? To accept that things might not work out, but the journey to that predictable end would still be incredible? Wasn't it worth it, just to be on that road?

Was it not the journey itself that was the purpose?

Cale rubbed his eyes and ignored the way they stung. He swung himself back up into a sitting position, bending over and resting his elbows on his legs, his head on his hands. He kept his eyes shut; there was a budding headache that he didn't want to deal with. If he denied it stubbornly enough, it might cease bothering him.

A fool's hope. But there was nothing wrong with that.

His fingers became entangled in his hair, pulling the strands free of the braid that he hadn't bothered to redo when he woke up this morning. He kind of wanted to think of something clever to say to Julius when he saw him at the ball, something to hint at his acceptance of the courtship. Something witty, the leads in romance novels were usually witty. Well, a lot of the times the male lead was just an asshole, but sometimes they were witty assholes.

But the urge to do something grand to prove his love was quickly overshadowed by his excitement at the idea of being witness to a royal ball. He couldn't wait to see the decorations, the castle. No, it was supposed to be a proper palace. He wondered if he'd be allowed a peek at the library; or perhaps a quick tour of the garden.

At the ball, he would love the chance to stand in a quiet corner and talk with Julius. He couldn't possibly dance, that would give him away as an imposter immediately, but he didn't want to anyway. He wanted to look and observe and watch a real life ball with his own eyes—if things went his way, he'd never have the chance again. He wanted to stand with Julius and talk with him; he wanted to see how Julius behaved in the world that he was raised in.

***

Calla's father met Cale outside the townhouse. The townhouse was located in an upscale part of the capital a good deal away from the hustle and bustle of the shopping district. Three stories high, the townhouse was narrow and pointed straight up, with a slanted roof and windows that faced the street. A stone staircase led from the sidewalk up to the porch. The slanted hill that the house stood on was covered by still falling snow.

Isaac Frosthaze smiled when Cale carefully stepped up the last step so as to not slept on the ice, snowflakes drifting through the air on the wind around him. "Let me," Isaac said and held out his hand. Cale gratefully handed over his single bag of luggage.

"Thanks," said Cale.

Isaac nodded at him, turning around and leading the way in. Behind them, the thick black door shut with a loud bang as Cale pulled off his jacket and hung it up on a silver hook by the door. He toed off his winter boots and took a cautious step in after Isaac.

"Your mother is in the parlor," said Isaac and gestured ahead.

The long hallways was just as narrow as the house had looked from the outside, with only enough room for one full-grown person to walk in at once. The walls were a dark red color, closer to the color of dark wine than red, and covered in numerous portraits. The floor was polished oak, a light wooden color that was in stark contrast to the walls. Every couple of paintings was an oil-lamp anchored to the wall and between some others sat doors.

Peeking through the first door he came to, Cale saw a cramped bathroom. There was only enough room in there for a toilet and a sink, the door opening outward into the hallway. Behind the next door on the other side of the hallway was what he would assume was the kitchen. It couldn't be more than two meters deep, but it stretched out pretty far to both sides of him when he peeked his head through, and it seemed to have all the amenities a kitchen needed. The tiles were yellow, the floor much more worn and weathered than the floor in the hallway. The cabinets white with copper handles.

Leaving the kitchen behind him, Cale kept exploring. Sometime when he hadn't been looking, Isaac had disappeared with his luggage, but Cale decided that he would find Mariana before he went in search of his room. Not far from the kitchen and next to the tiny bathroom was an open doorway without a door in it, and when he looked in he saw a slightly larger room with a spiral iron staircase going up to the next floor.

Next to the kitchen was a fairly big dining hall with a long table that had twelve chairs in total. The table was thick and rough, old and evidently well used. But Mariana wasn't in there either, so Cale moved on to the last doorway on this floor.

The parlor was probably the biggest room yet. It was occupied by a fireplace in one corner and two wide couches facing it. The floor was entirely covered by a grey carpet and the walls were covered by a calming green color. Mariana sat on one of the white couches reading, a pair of thin silver glasses delicately placed on her nose.

Clearing his throat, he watched as she jumped in her seat in reaction. "Calla!" She rose from her seat, her glasses almost slipping down her nose from the motion. Pulling them off her, she took quick steps forward and hugged him. "I've been so worried," she mumbled into his shoulder. Cale's arms rose to return the soft embrace, her plump body soft against him.

"I'm fine," he promised. His eyes closed against his will and he basked in the warmth that she seemed to radiate.

Hugging him tightly, she squeezed him one last time before she let go and stepped back to look him over. Her discerning eyes astutely observed him to find anything out of order. Satisfied at last, she nodded to herself and smiled at him. "Come, join me," she gestured to the couch.

Worrying his bottom lip, he finally nodded and followed after her. He sat down next to her on the couch and grabbed one of the books that laid splayed out on the low coffee table. It was a fiction book, a romance novel. Mariana had already gotten back to reading her own book when he glanced over at her and after a second of weighing the book in his hands, he decided to give it a try. It wasn't very thick, it couldn't hardly be more than two-hundred pages long.

Leaning back against the couch's backrest, he pulled his sock-covered feet up on it and made himself comfortable. He lost hours to it. The book was romance yes, and it was the kind of cliché plot that made people boycott it out of some misguided belief that 'cliché' was synonymous with 'bad'. It was predictable and he knew how it was going to end from page twelve.

But it gripped his heart and refused to let go the entire ride. When he closed the book hours later, his breaths were uneven and his hands trembled slightly. He gently put the hardbound book back on the table and curled back on the couch, his toes shoving a little at the soft cushion underneath him. Amusing himself with poking at the cushion, he let the time with Mariana pass in quiet companionship.

After a while, her own legs came up on the couch and her toes poked back at his. They were facing each other on opposite sides of the couch and Cale let his head rest on the backrest. He closed his eyes to the sound of her turning the pages. It didn't take him long to doze off.

He woke up to Mariana gently shaking his shoulder. Blinking blearily up at her, his hand came up to rub at his eyes as he stared questionably at her. "Hey." She smiled at him, "It's time for dinner."

Nodding, he climbed to his feet and swayed a little next to the couch. Silently, he followed after her to the dining hall and settled down on a large, imposing chair. His hands rested on his lap as he waited for his brain to reboot and tell him what to do. He sagged against the backrest of the dark brown chair and listened docilely as Mariana sat down as well.

Isaac entered only a few seconds later. The food was already served on the large table, set out with care between the candles and the cutlery. Once everyone was sitting (Cale sitting next to Mariana and Isaac across from them) Mariana clapped her hands and as if on cue, Isaac reached out to fill his plate.

Cale waited until they had both finished grabbing their food before he reached out to take his share of it. He calmly loaded his plate up, still blinking once in a while to clear the sleep from his eyes, and then dug in. He had had a very early breakfast this morning and during the ride he had only eaten pastries, so there was no surprise that he ate two full servings of the meal. Carefully, with the table manners that he had studiously picked up from watching the other students at the academy, he finished his meal and dabbed at his face with the cloth.

"Good?" Isaac asked him, his eyebrows furrowed.

"Yes, thank you," Cale assured him. He smiled at the man the best he could; he had barely had any contact at all with Isaac Frosthaze. The man was taciturn and didn't seem to like talking much.

But he never made Cale feel like he was intruding. Of course, Cale knew full well that he was the worst kind of intruder there was, but he appreciated the fact that Isaac treated him so cordially, despite the fact that Cale never knew what to say to him or how to act around him. Isaac never made him feel like he wasn't wanted.

He hoped that Calla knew how much his parents loved him. He frowned at that thought. Shaking his head to get rid of it, he looked over at Mariana. He was far more comfortable in her presence, far more than he had thought he would veer be when he first woke up in this body.

She sighed at him, "Yes, you can go."

Smiling brightly, he stood up and bowed quickly to them both before he left. He went straight to the room with the spiral staircase, almost jogging up the stairs. The next floor was similarly a long narrow hallway with doors on both sides. In the room that he ended up in, there was another spiral staircase that went up to yet another floor.

Cale tried all the doors (and found a proper bathroom with a big bathrobe that he was looking forwards to trying out) until he found what he presumed was Calla's room. There were no signs on the doors. After looking around it a little, he found his luggage behind the door and breathed out in relief.

The room was big and airy, the walls a light blue color with big windows that looked out at the street below. It was a corner room, with windows on another wall too, and his bed was nestled up against the windowless wall that bordered the hallway. Closing the door behind himself, Cale walked over and sat down on the bed. He bounced a little on the soft mattress.

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