Chapter 12
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On the morning of the day that the Royal Winter Ball would take place, Cale stumbled to his feet and immediately fell back on his bed. Yawning, he stayed there for a blissful minute before he attempted to get up again.

After finishing his business in the bathroom and getting dressed, he slowly stumbled down the spiral staircase, holding onto it with an iron grip as he descended to the lower floor. There, he yawned again as he wandered over to the dining hall, sitting down by the table, crossing his arms on it and resting his head on them. Closing his eyes, he very nearly fell asleep again.

A clatter at the other side of the table made him peek up over his arms. He hummed a questioning noise as he peered at Isaac. "You can keep resting until you mother arrives," said Isaac.

Cale closed his eyes again.

Not long after, Mariana arrived in a flowing blue skirt and settled down next to Isaac, across from Cale. She beamed at them both, her glittering eyes tastefully surrounded by eyeshadow and her lips painted a dark red. "Good morning," she chirped.

Forcing himself to sit up properly, Cale poured some ice cold water in his glass and chugged it down all at once. Exhaling, he put the glass down and said, "Morning."

Isaac nodded at them both. His brain was too exhausted to figure out what they were whispering about together so he got some bread and carelessly spread butter on it. Biting down on it, he rested his head on his hand and his elbow on the table as he stared with dull eyes at the wall behind Calla's parents. He mechanically chewed and swallowed down the bread.

It wasn't until breakfast was just about over that he started approaching anything resembling a waking condition. Yawning once more, Cale swallowed another glass of cold water, feeling it spreading throughout his chest and stomach. He rubbed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.

"Awake now?" Mariana asked, her red lips twitching.

Cale nodded. He straightened up in his seat and said, "Yes. Good morning."

"Good morning," Isaac said. The man picked up his own cup and sipped at the tea.

Mariana leaned over the table and asked Cale, "Are you ready for tonight?"

"Yes," Cale tried to smile at her. He forced his lips to move and hoped she wouldn't call him out on it. The closer they got the ball, the worse his nerves got. He had slept terribly and been plagued by nightmares all night long, and he was dearly in need of a nap. The nightmares weren't even about the Fire Spirit, they were about everything that could go wrong tonight at the ball. Because Sayer had awoken the Fire Spirit below Aurelis Academy a year before the event was originally set to happen, so who knew what could happen at the ball?

Maybe the poisoning incident that he was studying so hard to prevent would take place at the ball. Maybe a chandelier would fall from the ceiling and crush him. There was no telling what would happen, how things would change, and his brain had been bombarding him with so many nightmare scenarios that he was getting dizzy.

But he was still going to go. No matter how many ways this could have disastrous results, he was going. He would attend the ball and have a nice time with Julius, and ignore Sayer like he didn't exist.

He cleared his throat. "I'm ready," he reassured Mariana. Cale knew that his uneasy sleep had taken its toll on his appearance (he planned to take a nap before the ball) but he still hoped that they wouldn't say anything about it. He knew they worried, but he had to do this. He had to do something that was just for him, that wasn't for some far-off goal to leave the country.

For months, Cale had only been doing things that would advance his goals. No time for rest, no time for hobbies, not even any time for leisure reading. It was always about the end goal, always about making sure that he would survive. And yes, that was an important goal. It was worth the pain and the worry and the constant creeping paranoia that nothing he was doing mattered. But it tore at him. It ate away at his energy, at his hold to life.

Life was about more than survival.

Mariana calmly stood from her seat and rounded the large table. Her hand fell on his shoulder and squeezed softly. Cale gulped and slouched down again, taking the comfort offered.

He was weak, lately. He'd allowed himself to get closer and closer to Mariana, even knowing that he was just deceiving her. She reminded him of his mother; Mariana was always quick to offer comfort and she showed her worry without any concern for how others might interpret it. She didn't shy away from showing her love for her child. There was something charismatic about that. It ignited something in him that he couldn't extract himself from.

"I'll take a nap," he found himself saying, an answer to a question that hadn't been asked.

Mariana nodded and let him go, "I'll wake you up when it's time to get ready."

Choosing to take that as him being allowed to leave, Cale stiffly rose from his seat and smiled at Calla's parents. Walking back to his room, he decided to take his time and didn't hurry. It was still early in the morning; he had woken up and found himself unable to get back to sleep, so he'd elected to just go get breakfast. Perhaps he'd sleep better with a full stomach?

Back in his room, he wandered over to an armchair in the corner and curled himself up in it. Pulling his legs up under him, Cale picked up the book from the high and narrow table next to the armchair and opened it. He continued reading where he'd left off last night.

The sun rose while he was reading. The sunlight streamed in through the window and slowly shifted positions, casting long shadows in the room as the sun rose higher and higher in the sky. Cale turned the pages in the thick book and let his mind rest, distracted as it was with the riveting romance of Lady Vernia Gallows. Casting off his own worries and concerns, he allowed himself to forget about his thoughts as he read along with Vernia's attempts to woo the lovely Lydia.

It was perhaps not a book that demanded much brain power of its reader, but it was nice to read a novel that was so unapologetically queer. Vernia and Lydia made a stunning couple, and he enjoyed reading as they shamelessly trolled the entire kingdom.

But eventually the journey was over. It had reached a happy ending, and with the pleasant aftertaste of a predictable happy end, Cale once more wandered off. He made his way to the kitchen on the first floor and picked up an easily digested snacked before he walked back to his room and settled down on the armchair again. Once he was finished with the snack, he glanced at the clock on the wall. If he wanted to wake up in time to get ready for the ball, then it was about time that he took his nap.

He had never changed out of his sleeping gown, so he simply pulled the curtains over the windows, put out all the lights and slipped under the covers. Pulling it up to his chin, he stared at the white ceiling.

There was not a crack on it to be found.

He took a deep breath. Tonight. Tonight, he would go to a real-life ball. He would meet Julius and Magdalena and avoid Sayer like he was haunted. Cale was going to find a nice, quiet corner to disappear to and not come out for the remainder of the ball. It would be nice if Julius would join him there for a bit, but just being able to go was amazing. He'd honestly thought he would have persuaded himself not to attend by now.

It was a risk, after all. A risk with no payoff. What did attending the ball give him? There were no prizes. No quest to clear. No objective to complete. It was just an ordinary (royal) ball. There was no reason for Cale to risk so much by going to it.

His stomach fluttered. Yes, it was a stupid risk. But it was a risk he was choosing to take, a risk that he would gladly bear the consequences of. He was doing this for himself, for a nice night out where his imminent death wasn't hanging over his head like an ominous specter. He needed to relax before he collapsed from exhaustion—so he was doing this. A night of frivolousness purely for the sake of frivolity.

He liked to think he had earned it.

Turning over on his side, he closed his eyes. Burrowed under the warmth of the thick covers and surrounded by the soft forest green sheets, Cale went to sleep. Finally, he managed to get some decent rest.

And nearly three hours after that, Mariana woke him up with a gentle smile. "Slept well, dear?" she asked, her voice low and soothing.

Cale yawned and sat up on the bed. "Nn," he nodded. For once, he had had a dreamless sleep. No nightmares, none of his fears taunting him. Just a deep, uninterrupted slumber.

***

Cale was dressed in an elegant dark blue suit. It was so dark that it was nearly black. Under the suit he wore a white shirt and a black vest. The suit followed the lines of his body, clearly tailored specifically for him. His white hair had been washed and brushed only a few hours ago; Mariana had personally styled it. It had been piled up at the top of his head into an artful bun with a pair of fancy silver pins holding it together. Some hair strands had already fallen out of the bun, but Mariana claimed that it worked.

How Mariana had convinced him to let her put lipgloss on him, he didn't know. But it didn't add any color, it only made them shine, so he had decided that it wasn't worth arguing about. Plus, she had looked happy as she'd dressed him up and styled his hair.

Stepping carefully down the stone steps from the porch to the sidewalk that ran along the street, Cale slowly made his way over to the carriage waiting on him. Isaac and Mariana were behind him, letting him lead the way as they whispered quietly to each other, their arms entwined. Cale stopped for a minute when he reached the sidewalk. Turning his head back, he looked up at the sky.

The sun had already set again. The Winter Solstice was the shortest day in the year, and though it was only about five in the afternoon, night had long since fallen. From the sky, snowflakes gently descend to the earth, caught in the wind's dance. In the streetlights' glow, the snowflakes looked like glittering diamonds as they fell on the ground.

For a moment, the world was still.

Then it abruptly started moving again and Cale clambered into the carriage, sitting down and pulling his cap off at the same time. Mariana and Isaac followed after him and sat across from Cale. Shortly thereafter, the carriage set off. Feeling his body swaying with the movements of the carriage as it rolled over the cobblestone streets, Cale looked out the window of the carriage's door.

Outside, houses rolled on by. The streetlights lit up the surroundings in a yellow light form the oil-lamps. The snow kept on falling, even as it built up on the ground: decimeters deep. Cale amused himself by watching the falling snow as they traveled to the palace.

As they approached the palace, more carriages—fancy ones with decorations and handsome coachmen—started to join them on the streets. Cale tried his best to see them out of the window, but the streets quickly became so narrow that the carriages no longer fit side by side. Their carriage was now only one amongst plenty others in a long line of needlessly elaborately decorated carriages.

Sitting back on his seat properly, Cale listlessly waited for the carriage to arrive at their destination. His mind went over the most recent lessons he had had before the holidays started as he relaxed against the backrest. Distracted as he was, it seemed like no time at all had passed when the carriage finally arrived.

"We're here," Isaac said and stood up. He climbed out of the carriage and then held out his hand, helping Mariana down. Contrary to his expectations, Isaac helped Cale down as well, letting go only when Cale stood securely on the cobblestone street.

Cale followed after Calla's parents up the long line of steps to the palace entrance. It was a grand, picturesque gate entrance, with guards on both sides and a white stone wall over three meters high. He had to bend his head back to see the top. Plenty of other finely dressed people were slowly moving up the steps as well, some of them nodding gracefully to the Frosthaze family.

When they reached the top, Mariana gave their invitation to the guard and they were let in. Walking through the gates, Cale tried not to be overwhelmed by how mindbogglingly big they were. He eyed them thoughtfully as he stepped out the other side of them. Following passively behind them, Cale let Mariana and Isaac lead the way; it wasn't like he had any idea where he was going.

Inside the gates were a completely boxed in, large courtyard. On the other side of the area was another sets of stairs that lead to a pair of open doors. The double doors had to be over two meters high and just as wide. They stood wide open, letting in anyone who approached. As they got closer, Cale could hear someone announcing the identity of everyone who walked through the doors.

They didn't stop to talk to anyone in the courtyard. Mariana and Isaac walked straight ahead up the steps to the second entrance, their steps firm and unyielding. Cale's steps faltered when he walked through the gate, his eyes widening to an almost comical degree.

The ballroom was huge.

There was no hallway, no they stepped straight into the ballroom. Like in a fairytale, there was a set of stairs leading down to the proper room—Cale could see the whole room from his vantage point. They area they stood on just inside the doors as the doorman read out their identities was like a balcony overlooking the gigantic ballroom. The balcony extended along every wall of the room; if he didn't want to get dragged into the ball, perhaps he could spend the entire night up here?

Just what he could see of the ballroom made him lightheaded: the floor was shining white marble, chandeliers were hanging intermittently from the ceiling above even the balcony, beautiful people in magnificent formal attire danced and mingled on the floor. Among them walked impeccably dressed servants, holding trays of food and drinks.

Cale was so caught up in the moment that he completely missed what the doorman said. He stood still as a statue, just staring at the breathtaking view in front of him, until Mariana gripped his arm and pulled him along, descending the stairs together with him.

It wasn't like some fairytale, where the whole room turned to look at them. A few did, some even nodding politely to them, but most just went on with their own business. Still, Cale felt his heart pounding viciously in his chest, his clammy hands clenching and his stomach fluttering. He couldn't help letting out a quiet "oh" when they reached the bottom and stepped out onto the ballroom's marble flooring. The blue carpet they had been walking on that blanketed the stairway ended at the bottom of it.

"Is it everything you imagined?" asked Mariana, her voice amused.

Cale nodded. He breathed out, "Yes, it's... marvelous." He couldn't think of another word to describe it.

"That's good," Mariana patted the hand he had on her arm.

They wandered through the ballroom, mingling their way through the loose crowd, until they reached a pair of old women. Mariana smiled at them and pulled him along until they stood in front of them. The women were old, at least over seventy if he had to guess. They both had grey-white hair with small smatterings of pale blond mixed in. When they saw Mariana, they smiled.

Mariana introduced him, "Calla, this is my aunt, Saskia, and her best friend, Lené."

Cale smiled at them both. "Hello," he offered, doing his best to be polite.

"Your health is better now?" asked Saskia, her sharp brown eyes looking him over. She frowned at him, "You don't look very good, have you been eating properly?"

"Ah... yes, to the best of my ability," Cale said. He ignored the look that Mariana gave him; he had been eating the best he could, it was just that for a while there he hadn't been able to eat much more than soup. But he was well on his way to recovery and hadn't had any problems eating heavier, more nutritious food lately.

Saskia hummed but thankfully let the subject drop. Mariana and Saskia proceeded to talk on their own, skipping between subjects so fast that Cale found it impossible to keep up. By the time ten minutes had passed, he had given up.

Looking around them, Cale could vaguely make out a few people that he thought he recognized; similarly studious people that were up early and made frequent use of the academy's library. He nodded to those that were close enough, pleased that they nodded back. At least if he was wrong and they weren't who he thought, nobody would realize.

After a while though, it did get boring. Just standing around while Mariana and Isaac made smalltalk with a variety of people wasn't very interesting. Something they talked about the latest scientific discoveries, which always reinvigorated his interest, but most of the time it was about more miscellaneous stuff. Eventually, Cale decided that it was about time to explore that balcony. Bending his head back, he saw it overlooking him; they were standing almost right under it.

He said goodbye to Mariana and Isaac, happy when they didn't argue with his decision. They waved him off with encouraging expressions, and Cale made his way over to the nearest stairway. It wasn't the stairway that lead to the ballroom entrance, but rather a much more narrow and steep stairway, out of the way of the hustle and bustle of the center of the ballroom.

Making his way up the blue carpet-clad steps, Cale slowly ascended the stairs. He looked out over the ballroom as he walked, still in awe of the glittering atmosphere. He gulped and shook his head, forcing his steps to pick up speed before he found himself standing in the middle of the stairs for hours. Besides, he would have a good view from the balcony. And there, hardly anyone would think him odd.

At the top of the stairs, Cale's eyes searched out Mariana and Isaac. Both of them were right where he'd left them, still talking to the same young couple. Somehow at ease that they hadn't moved, Cale set off to find a nice, dark corner to relax in.

***

Sipping at the wine in his hand, Cale leaned agains the marble pillar next to him and basked in the ball's atmosphere. He took in the quiet mellow light form the chandeliers and the shadows they cast on the floor in unfairly interesting patterns. Watching the people dancing below him, Cale felt the urge to take a picture. He had never regretted his inability to draw so much in his life.

It was nice up here. The view was fabulous and the lack of people asking him questions he couldn't answer combined with the silence made him want to sag against the pillar and leave his whole weight on it. He took another sip of the wine; he'd asked and there was supposed to be almost zero alcohol in it. Just enough to get a slight buzz after five or so glasses, but not enough to impair any judgement. Mostly, he was drinking it for the taste.

Letting the wine pool in his mouth, he slowly swallowed it down. Cale tilted his head back and stared up at the ceiling above him; it was just as grand and glorious as everything else he'd seen of the palace. The colors of the decorations seemed to be a mix of a warm blue color and gold, and the paintings almost excessively showcased people—presumably members of the royal family.

There weren't a lot of people up here on the balcony. As such, Cale was undisturbed in his little corner with the pillar and the potted plant. He wasn't hiding so much as taking advantage of the natural architecture. Occasionally, he caught glimpses of Callas' parents, but for the most part, time passed in a quiet manner.

He had no issues with this.

It was approaching nine in the evening when someone finally came to talk to him. "Calla!" Magdalena smiled brightly at him, pulling a young man by the hand. The man was young, barely twenty if Cale's judgement was to be trusted, with a slim build, black hair swept back and square glasses with a gold rim. She swung their entwined hands and said, "It is my pleasure to introduce you to my fiancé, Morgan Greystone. Morgan, this is Calla Frosthaze."

Morgan stretched out his hand. "It's an honor to meet you."

"Likewise," Cale shook his hand and tried to think of what he should say in this situation. His mind was drawing a blank so he did his best to seem friendly and polite with his facial expressions and body language. He couldn't tell if he succeeded or not.

Magdalena clapped her hands loudly and he started. "Have you seen Julius yet?" she asked, her brown eyes twinkling mischievously.

He shook his head. "Not yet."

"Good, good, I wanted to talk to you first." Magdalena saddled up next to him and took the wine glass from him, handing it off to her fiancé without a word. Morgan received the glass and held it up, making the action seem inexplicably elegant. "So, you know that Sayer is here right?" When Cale nodded, she continued, "I just saw him getting into a fight with Julius downstairs, it was hilarious."

Blinking rapidly, Cale attempted to process the information being relayed to him. "Julius is fighting Sayer?"

"Fought," stressed Magdalena. "The fight is over now, but I've ever never liked Julius so much before. He really went at it."

"There was no commotion," Cale pointed out.

Waving her hand, Magdalena once more held hands with Morgan. "Alright, so they didn't get into a fistfight or anything, but Julius is really sharp with his words, you know? He just tore into Sayer and Sayer had no responses; I've never seen him get tongue-tied before!" Laughing sharply, she shook her head and coughed from the force of it. "Sayer's followers were there, and they were so horrified!" Something about that set off her laughter again.

"What Maggie means," Morgan said and held out the wine glass to Magdalena. Magdalena gripped it and held it out to Cale, who took it from her and sipped at the wine. "Is that Sayer asked Julius if Julius really intends to marry you, implying that you aren't a good marriage partner in the process, and Julius took offense."

"Ah," Cale nodded. An offended Julius was a vicious thing. Certainly capable of dealing some damage to Sayer.

"Yes, ah," nodded Magdalena. "You should have seen Sayer's face." And she was laughing again, holding her hand in front of her mouth to muffle some of the sound.

Cale let her be. Admittedly, the image of Julius getting into a word-fight with Sayer made him want to laugh too; Julius was sharp on a good day just existing, but when he actually meant to hurt someone? His words were cutting. Cale turned his face away so that Magdalena and her fiancé couldn't see his smile, forcibly suppressing his laughter.

Still, though he was amused, he wondered what Sayer could have said to set Julius off. Julius wasn't an idiot, and in company like this, he knew full well that suppressing some of his worser habits was necessary. If Sayer had truly just implied that Cale was a bad match, he didn't think that Julius would have so mad as to make Magdalena laugh. Sayer must have said something that Magdalena didn't hear.

Of course, it was possible that Julius had simply been in a bad mood and taken it out on Sayer, but Cale doubted it.

Hearing footsteps on the closest stairway (the same one that Cale had ascended not long ago) Cale glanced at it out of the corner of his eyes. His lips formed a smile when caught sight of Julius' stiff expression. He turned his head back and caught Magdalena's gaze before tilting his head in Julius' direction. She followed his gaze, caught sight of Julius as well, and grinned.

"Julius Claymore," Morgan stiffly greeted Julius when the teenager got close enough.

Julius raised an eyebrow and scoffed, "Don't break your back, Greystone. You don't have to pretend to be pleased to see me."

Morgan snorted. He turned his face away and elected not to respond. A wise choice; Julius was clearly still in a bad mood. Cale hid his laughter under a flimsy cough and smiled pleasantly at Julius. "It's nice to see you," Cale said, his heart squeezing with the words and his voice breathy.

Maybe there was more alcohol in that wine than he thought?

Instantly, Julius' whole being softened. His face lit up with a breathtaking smile, his eyes glittered in the low light of the wall-lamps, his body tilted toward Cale like he wanted to come closer—Cale gulped and quickly took another sip of the wine. Feeling it sliding down his throat, his eyes stared at Julius' enraptured face, at Julius' gaze following the line of Cale's throat.

Cale looked away before he did something he'd regret. Clearing his throat, he looked down at his empty wineglass and mumbled, "I'm out of wine."

Julius took a step closer to him. He was close enough that Cale could feel his warmth, and Cale found himself turning toward him without thought. Julius smiled at him, his eyes so soft that Cale feared they would spear his heart. "Should I get you another glass?" Julius asked, his lips twisted in amusement.

"No, ah, I should probably quit while I'm ahead," Cale said. He grinned at Julius, unable to control his facial muscles and force them to stop. Julius held out his hand and Cale gripped it, his beam growing wider.

He felt like he should be blushing. If Calla's body had allowed it, he would have been blushing up a storm.

He cleared his throat and glanced over at Magdalena, unsurprised at the amused look on her face. When she spotted him looking, she grinned at him. Then she turned her gaze to Julius and said, "Sayer really pissed you off, huh."

It wasn't a question.

Julius glared at hurt, his body growing taut, his neck stiff as he confirmed, "Yes, he did."

Morgan smirked, not even bothering to hide it. Magdalena meanwhile just snorted, waving her hand as she laughed out, "I've seen him get that humiliated in public! He always manages to turn the tables somehow. But this time, wow, you did not hold back. And his girlfriend, whatshername, just stood there and glared at you!"

She started laughing again. Morgan caught sight of Cale's questioning expression and answered, "She's drunk."

Cale hummed. Swinging his arm, he delighted in the way that Julius let the motion carry over, their entwined hands swinging in the air between them. He squeezed tightly, his heart skipping a beat in his chest. He felt flushed, sure that his hand must be clammy and uncomfortable to hold. But Julius didn't say anything and when Cale looked over at him, Julius only smiled softly at him. The gentle curve to his lips, the soft look in his eyes; it was all too much.

Cale turned his whole body to face Julius, ignoring the sounds of muffled laughter and quiet talking coming from Magdalena and her fiancé. He smiled at Julius, taking a step closer.

Julius looked at him with shining eyes. "I've missed you," Julius whispered, his voice so unbearably gentle that Cale felt his throat seize up. Cale licked his lips, his eyes zoning in on Julius' mouth and the way that he was worrying his bottom lip.

"I've missed you too," said Cale. He took another small step closer, bringing him up right in front of Julius. Raising a hand, he let it stay in the air between them, faintly trembling. "Can I?" he asked.

"Naturally," Julius said, raising his own hand and laying it on Cale's waist. Cale put his hand on Julius' shoulder and squeezed, captivated by the way that Julius stared at him. It was all so unbearably soft.

Pressing closer, Cale's hand wandered from Julius' shoulder to the other man's neck. His fingers gently swept over the warm skin, into the thick mess of hair. His gaze lowered from Julius' glowing green eyes to his glistening lips. Julius' body swayed toward him, and Cale was powerless to resist. Bending forward the last tiny bit of distance, Cale kissed him. 

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