Chapter 25

 H.M. Ward

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Cassie didn't want to go through with the Pairing, and as the hour grew nearer, she felt worse. Looking over her shoulder, she expected Cole to show up again, but he didn't. Cassie sat in front of a mirror, letting Brianna help her tame her curls. The girl pulled her hair until Cassie's scalp ached, but she didn't care. A sickening feeling crept from her stomach and up her throat - she told Cole to go on without her. After all this time, there would be no one left to protect her here. She was on her own from now on.
Part of Cassie didn't think Cole would leave without her, but the other part knew that he needed to. She would just slow him down, and while Cassie didn't want to be dead-weight, she knew she was. There was nothing she lent to aiding in his escape. There was no way to help Cole. She'd just get him caught.
Brianna gently tapped the top of her head with a comb, "Hello? I'm talking to you. Anyone home?"
Cassie blinked and came back to the present. "Oh, sorry, Brianna. I zoned out for a second." Cassie smiled at her in the mirror. "What were you saying?"
Brianna laughed, instantly assuming the wrong reason for Cassie's distraction, "You can't stop thinking about him, can you?" Cassie didn't reply. It was easier to let Brianna think what she wanted. "I was asking you if there was another guy that you'd rather be Paired with."
Cassie's big brown eyes looked up at Brianna's in the mirror, "No, not really. I've never really thought about it before." That wasn't totally true, but she barely spoke to this girl. In truth, Kahli was the only girl in palace that she'd felt like she could talk to. With everyone else, it was a matter of being friendly, but she didn't share her concerns or dreams, not that she had dreams anymore.
Cassie was at the end of her life, of that she was certain. If Kahli hadn't saved her from the Purging, something else would have ended her insignificant life - maybe a scrape or a bruise - or the birth of her child. It killed Cassie to think about bringing a baby into this world, especially because she wouldn't be there to protect and raise that child. It was like they were livestock and nothing more. That's what humanity aspired to, and they seemed content.
When Cassie was a child, before that bloody Deliverance Day that ended with her and Cole living in the palace, everyone hoped to live in the palace. It was the place where humans were the safest. There was no fear of the elements, no worries about clothing or food. There was always a soft bed and plenty of blankets. And they limited how often a person could be used for feeding. It sounded like utopia back then, but now it was different. Cassie felt no different living here than she did at the old farm. In the end, she was still just a body to be used how the vampires pleased. Cassie was born into slavery and she would die that way.
As she thought of these things, Brianna prattled on, "The guy with the brown hair and the dark eyes, what's his name?"
"They all have brown hair and dark eyes," Cassie replied, trying not to sound snide, but she really wanted to laugh. Kahli would have laughed. "You'll have to be more specific."
Brianna tapped the comb to her lip and had a far-away look in her eye. "He's named after a poet - Browning?"
"Chaucer," Cassie replied, knowing exactly who Brianna was talking about. They lived in the palace together for years, but the guys were kept at a distance. The only time they really spoke was at special events and the Purging. Chaucer had made an impression on Cassie. He'd been on her team once. The guy was a poet, if there were such occupations anymore. Cassie felt warmth spread through her heart as she thought about it. Chaucer was kind, but he wasn't a push-over, either. He was like Cole in some ways - he looked out for the weaker people in his group - but he wore his heart on his sleeve. Cole hid everything, letting his pain fester inside.
"Yeah! Him," Brianna gushed. "Oh my God. His lips are so smooth. And the way his hair curls slightly," Brianna kissed her fingers. It was something she got from old spaghetti ads. A curvy woman pressed her fingers to her lips and kissed them. Brianna thought it was cute and had been doing it for a while. "Al dente!"
"Do you even know what that means?" Cassie asked, grinning.
Brianna threw out a narrow hip and said, "Does it matter? I look awesome doing it. It makes all the guys drool, and al dente just sounds awesome. I'd like to be al dente."
"You are al dente. We're all al dente." Cassie smirked at her.
"Well," Brianna asked, sounding a little terse, more than she should have, "what does it mean, if you even know?"
"It means were done. Finished. Ready to be eaten." Cassie stared blankly in the mirror as she said it. All the fun was sucked out of the air instantly.
Brianna seemed annoyed, "You're such a downer, Cassie. Pull it together, all ready."
"I am together," Cassie snapped, and tugged her hair away from Brianna. "Just because I think quoting Spaghetti-O ads is silly, doesn't mean - "
Brianna cut her off, "It was a famous French chef. And whatever. Do your own hair. Wallow over here by yourself, for all I care. I was just trying to be nice, but it doesn't really matter what you do, Brent will want you anyway, because you're his only choice." Her words became sharper as Brianna spoke, but the smile remained on her lips. If you watched the conversation through the window, it looked like they were friends, but they weren't. Brianna tossed the comb in front of the mirror and walked away.
Cassie didn't like her anyway, but isolating herself from the other girls was stupid. She'd done it once before and things didn't end well. Cassie ran a brush through her hair. It was wavy now, and not hanging in tight ringlets. Brianna had put make-up on her face, too. Cassie's brown eyes were surrounded by black dust, her lashes dark as night. As she stared at her reflection, Cassie didn't feel like herself.
"Good," she mumbled to no one. "If I felt like myself, I couldn't possibly go through with this."
Cassie pulled the sheer lace dress over her head and smoothed it out. This was different than last time. This time she knew what she was walking into. Last time, she had no idea. The King wanted her, that was what Cassie had been told. She practically bounced down the hallway that night, heading directly toward the King's rooms thinking she'd been called for blood and that her blood was finally worth something. What awaited her that night was very different. She cringed thinking about it, thinking about being used like that, but here she was doing it again. Last time, Cassie had no choice, but this time was different.
There was a knock on her door. Cassie glanced at the three empty beds, before saying, "Come in."
It was Miriam, "Just checking to make sure you're ready, Cassie." Miriam entered the room and stood in front of Cassie, looking her over. "Stand up, girl. Spin. I haven't got all night."
Cassie did as she was told. The corners of her mouth felt like they were weighed down with lead weights. "Do I look all right?" Cassie asked because she didn't know what else to say.
"The gown is a little big through the hips. Come here and I'll fix it." Miriam pulled the sewing kit from under her arm and opened the box. Inside was a rainbow of spools of thread, different sized scissors, zippers, fashion tape, and anything you could possibly need to mend a garment. Miriam selected a black spool, threaded the needle with the precision of a master seamstress, and got to work. She used a combination of stitches and dressing tape to make the gown fit right. "It probably doesn't matter how much I fix this. That boy'll just rip it off of you anyway and another gown will go in the trash." Miriam held the black lace in her hands, looking down at it with remorse.
Cassie put her hand on Miriam's shoulder, "I'll make sure the dress doesn't get ruined. It's your finest, by far."
Her kind words made Miriam look down at the hem of the dress longer than usual. The woman didn't take compliments well. Cassie was smiling as she reached into the box and fished something out of the sewing kit. Cassie slipped it behind her back, her heart pounded wildly as she did it. Cassie wasn't cunning. She didn't lie, cheat, or steal - but a plan formed when that box opened. The sparkling scissors caught Cassie's eye like a glittering bar of gold and she couldn't look away. Before she realized what she was doing, she gave Miriam compliments that were designed to pull her heartstrings, and Cassie's fingers wrapped around the item she wanted, lifting it out of the box without Miriam noticing.
Miriam stood, and squeezed Cassie's cheek like she was a little girl. "You're too good to be in a place like this."
Grinning shyly, Cassie said, "No, I don't think so. After all, I'm here for the same reason you are," Cassie replied, hoping that Miriam was too distracted to notice that she took something.
Miriam looked up at her, confused. "And what's that?"
"They have really good food."
Miriam laughed. Shaking her head, she said, "You're a rare breed." Gathering the sewing box, Miriam tossed her things back inside and hurried out the door to the next girl.
Normally, Miriam would have been assigned one girl per night during the Pairing, but with the way they changed things, she was a distracted, frantic mess. Nothing was perfect and Miriam had been fretting since she found out about the changes that morning.
Cassie watched her disappear through the door, and then looked down at her scantily clad body and wondered where to hide the stolen scissors.