I dropped to my knees, knelt right beside him, registering the shocked look on his face as he took in the gruesome state of his sad, headless corpse.
Repeating all the same words I’d said before—but just like before I was unable to get through to him—he resisted me at every turn.
“I will win their favor—they will worship me once more!” He shouted, rising to his feet, reaching for the helmet he sunk onto his head. “I will not be forgotten! I will be remembered! I will gain their admiration again!”
He retrieved his sword, picked up his shield, and I was just about to address him again, when Messalina sprang up behind me and said, “You’re much tougher than you look.” Her gaze burned on mine as she made her approach. “You’re surprisingly resilient for a young girl your age.” She stood before me, her words pointed, chosen carefully, and I knew without looking that the magic was gone.
I was no longer gorgeous, teenaged Aurelia—I was back to being skinny, scrawny, little Riley Bloom. Drowning in a pool of silky blue fabric that hung in unflattering droops, as Messalina shook her head, tsking in pity as her tongue clicked the roof of her mouth.
“What would Dacian say?” she wondered aloud.
I sighed, sure that he wouldn’t say much of anything if he saw me like this. Heck, he wouldn’t even recognize me in my current state—definitely wouldn’t cross rooms just to meet me—much less name constellations after me—never mind attempt to hold my hand and kiss me.
But then a new thought occurred. Something so horrifying I hesitated to voice it.
Forcing the words from my mouth when I said, “I don’t know Messalina, what would Dacian say?” I brought my finger to my chin, screwed my lips to the side as though deeply contemplating. “My guess is he would say whatever you make him say, since, after all, he is your creation, isn’t he? As soulless as the guests at your never-ending party, as soulless as the Roman nobles who crowd your uncle’s box.” I stared hard at her, wanting her to know that while it may hurt to realize my boyfriend had been fake, I refused to be devastated. “As soulless as everyone here, but you, and me, and of course, Theocoles.”
“Is that what you think?” she asked, her voice low and soft.
I shrugged. I mean, I wasn’t absolutely sure of it, I had no real proof, but it seemed like a pretty good theory.
“I miss our friendship,” she said, moving right past that, refusing to either confirm or deny. “You and I were such great friends, weren’t we?” She smiled slowly as though lost in the memory. “Believe me when I say that it was truly the most fun I’ve had in a very long time. There is nothing you can say that will make me think otherwise.”
“You enchanted me!” I shook my head, hardly believing what she’d just said. “You had me under your spell. And every time I’d start to find my way out—you brushed your hand across my forehead and put me under again!”
“Yeah? So?” She shrugged. “Do you mean to tell me you didn’t enjoy yourself?”
I mashed my lips together, buried my hands in the folds of my skirt, knowing that I had. I’d enjoyed myself far more than I cared to admit. Enjoyed myself so much, I’d chosen to stay, to pretend, even after Bodhi and Buttercup had managed to wake me.
Messalina’s world was alluring, tempting—it allowed me to live my own fairy tale—the kind of life I’d always dreamed of with fancy parties, pretty dresses, and a really cute prince by my side. If I’d stayed under her spell, I’d be happy for a very long time, perhaps even eternity. I’d live the same day over and over again, sure, but it’s not like I’d know the difference.
But while her world was soft and comfortable, offering everything I could ever want, it all came too easy. There was something to be said for patience and hard work.
There was something to be said for realizing your dream the old-fashioned way, by actually earning it.
“It doesn’t have to end, you know?” She smiled, lifted her hand. “You’re the little sister I always wanted, we can return to that easily, just say the word and it’s done.”
My bangs lay limp against my forehead, while the bodice of my dress sagged in the most embarrassing way—providing two very good reasons to give my consent, along with a whole heap of others that lined up behind it. All I had to do was allow her to brush her finger across my brow and I could dissolve into bliss. Though as tempting as it was, still I said, “No.” My face stern, eyes narrowed, so she’d know that I meant it. “Besides, I already have a sister, and someday, we’ll be together again. But for now, I’m content with the memories.” Memories and occasional visits to the Viewing Room, not to mention Dreamland. I nodded toward Theocoles, then returned my gaze to hers. “You know I have a job to do. You know I’m here to get through to him—to help him move on.”
“And you know that I can’t let you do that,” she said, her face sincere with regret.
“Then it seems we’ve reached a stalemate,” I said, watching as s
he turned away from me in favor of him.
Returning to a scene that had first taken place handfuls of centuries earlier. The one where Theocoles stared in bewilderment when he followed his own dead body as it was dragged from the arena.
My voice calling after her as I said, “It doesn’t end here! I will not give up until I’ve finished what I came for!”
The words falling on deaf ears as the gladiator and his girlfriend disappeared behind the big iron gates.
“Riley!” Bodhi called out to me, reached for me, but I just kept going, swerving right past him, right past poor whining Buttercup as I found my way out of the Colosseum and onto the street.
“You were great back there,” Bodhi said, running to keep up with me. “Really, as your guide I have to say I was truly impressed.”