Although the music still blared and the party guests still danced and cheered, Cassandra was sure that the entire room could hear her dismay tumbling like a boulder into the pit of her stomach. Not to mention her heart, which pounded against the cage of her chest so relentlessly that she was sure it would somehow push its way right out of her. She grimaced, trying not to breath too hard, trying not to show too much pain - but the caverns and holes of Marianne's words drove iron tipped skewers into Cassandra's body, not stopping or letting up until she spoke again.
Marianne flinched, her big eyes watering. “Cassandra? Did you hear me?” She bit her lip with an anxious force, and a small spirt of blood burst forth from it. “Are you even – Are you actually listening to me? Cassandra?"
Starting at the sound of her name – her real name, not a peeling label ripped from someone else’s face - Cassandra turned slowly towards the other girl, tentatively raising her hand to rest upon Marianne’s shoulder, as if to check if she was real. She pressed her other hand to her temples as the soup of her mind churned, hopelessly wishing that she’d left the party as soon as she’d sufficiently savoured the boy’s soul. If only fate was the kind of fluid variable that could be changed, the siren reminisced, blinking so slowly it was obvious that she prayed Marianne would have disappeared completely by the time her eyes opened again.
Her eyes opened, as they were bound to, but Marianne was still there. Cassandra choked, her words sticking to the sides of her throat with a hopeless persistency. "Marianne. Marianne. You look different," she said stupidly, sounding like a teenaged child rendered useless by love.
"I suppose I have. But it's been years, Cassandra. You've changed too, you know," she smiled softly, though her beam did not light the flickering candle in her eyes.
"Three," said Cassandra quickly. "It's only been three years. Things can still be as they were." She coughed, her throat suddenly painfully dry, her words stiff and with all the feeling of something rubbed raw with sandpaper. “Coralie. Coral-“
"No,” whispered Marianne softly. “No. A lot has changed since you knew me, Cassie. My name is no longer Coralie, nor do I want it any longer. You must call me Marianne now, as everyone does.” Her eyes glazed over, her sorrowful expression replaced with a wistful longing as she repeated her latter words. “Everyone does.”
Cassandra jerked her head backwards in disbelief, her mind wrestling itself down the winding road of uncertain realisation. “Why-“
Marianne shook her head forlornly, pressing her index finger against Cassandra’s lips with a nervous smile. “It doesn’t matter. Nothing from before matters now.” When Cassandra opened her mouth to speak again Marianne hurriedly talked over her, though her voice was as soft and as creamy as her smile. “Except for you. You still matter. You always matter. It's just that I have-"
Brushing the girl’s hand from her lips, Cassandra’s face bleached a sickly white as she struggled to keep the childish whine from her tone. “Cora- Marianne, sorry. Sorry, I’m so sorry, Gods, I'm sorry. What- I- I don’t understand is why – why have you come back to me? After so long? It's been so long." A thought suddenly occurred to her, knocking her off balance with the sheer magnitude of it. "You- wait, you haven't been outcast? You're not-"
Marianne gazed tremulously towards Cassandra, patiently, passionately, the crux of their meeting waiting eagerly at the sidelines, longing to finally reveal itself. “I'm fine, I promise you. Cassie, I told you. Weren’t you listening? I’ve come to take you home,” she said, grinning weakly; her mouth creasing at the corners like paper rinsed in roseate lipstick.
Crumpling her face in confusion, Cassandra wormed her lips into a distorted caricature of her usual smirk. “But Coralie…” – Marianne delicately ignored the use of her previous name – “Coralie, that’s impossible. I can’t go back. I just can’t - it's against the rules, it's not allowed. You know the consequences of me even trying to return.” She paused, running over each word in her head before saying it aloud. "Have… the council haven't requested my return? Why?” And silently, she spoke her unsaid words, ‘And why did they send you? To torture me? To make certain I would come back with you?'
Though they were not words she said aloud, Cassandra was certain that Marianne had heard them, for the girl shifted uncomfortably in her glitter encrusted party shoes, locking her fingers together in a symbol of apprehensive agony. “Cassandra, really, it doesn’t matter. I couldn’t tell you here,” she gestured around her, at the party Cassandra was now only barely aware of, “Anyway. And we must leave for… home… as soon as we can.”
Drawing a deep breath, Cassandra began to nod her head in submission, then stopped, her lips setting into a straight line of defiance. “No.” Her voice squeaked awkwardly, like a rusty old door that was falling off its hinges, but she ignored it, squaring her chin and tossing her head.
“What? But Cassandra, you have to see reason –“
“No. No, Coralie – Marianne, whatever you want to call yourself. You’re the one that has to see reason, not me. You can’t- gods above, you can’t honestly believe that you can waltz up to me after three goddamn years and expect everything to be as it was before. You can’t seriously think that even now, after so desperately, desperately long, that I will follow your lead without knowing where you’ll take me. I thought I'd never see you again! I thought you didn't even care! You –“
Marianne’s jaw locked, the tinder in her eyes sparking and flickering into a searing flame. “Yes? Yes, Cassandra? I’m sorry, I must have heard you wrong - or are you really blaming me, though it was your own fault that got you outcast? I thought you'd be grateful, you know? I thought you'd be happy to see me again - not angry, or despondent, or whatever this is! I'm telling you that you can go home! You should be in ecstasy! Home, Cassie!"
Someone behind her coughed, and she stopped short, her hands (which had been illustrating her words in grand, sweeping gestures) dropping sullenly to her sides. She whirled around to face the person, her fingers curling into fists.
The boy standing at her heels clutched all the gangly symbols of pock marked adolescents; he was certainly not old enough for the cider he gripped between his palms. He stumbled backwards as Marianne turned, smiling lazily at both girls. “Chill, chill. I’m not gonna attack you or nothing.”
Marianne narrowed her eyes in stormy asperity, all human pretences abandoned. “Frankly, I really don’t think you’d have a chance to come a step closer to me before my hands were at your throat, i̱líthios."
The boy wolf whistled admiringly. “Ooh, a feisty one, you are.” He laughed, his breath oozing with the unattractive odour that walks hand in hand with too much booze. “Well, whatever, I was just checkin’ to see if you ladies were okay. You were shoutin’ so loud I was thinkin’ you’d bring the roof down or some'at." He chuckled again, squarely smacking the top of Cassandra’s thigh as he blundered away to meet his friends.
Cassandra growled quietly, her hands clenching into vises. “I hate humans,” she muttered darkly to Marianne, her brow furrowing into a despising sneer.
“Mhmm,” replied Marianne in consent. “They’re delicious though.” She raked a hand through her long hair, adding on as an afterthought, “You have been eating well, I trust?”
“I wouldn’t settle for anything but,” Cassandra returned easily. It was nice, talking to Marianne. It felt just like old times, when she had been Marianne's and Marianne had been hers. She cleared her throat loudly, nodding over to the girls Marianne had stood with by the speaker. Catching her gaze between her spread-eagled fingers, the smallest of them waved clumsily. "So," said Cassandra, "I take it you haven't eaten yet tonight."
Marianne blinked. "Pardon?"
"The human girls. By the speakers, over in the corner. Which of their souls are you pining for? To feed on, I mean. I don't see why you'd deign to talk to them if you've already eaten."
Marianne coughed uncertainly, her fingers snaking up to fiddle with her hair. “Ehm, well…they’re not exactly human, Cassie. Well, they aren't human at all, really. It’s… I… Well, you didn’t think I’d been sent to fetch you back home alone, did you?”
Cassandra’s mouth parted in disbelief. “Sorry? What? Those girls –“ she pointed across the room, to where the group Marianne had parted still stood, giggling incessantly – “Sirens?" She scowled, counting them mentally. There were four, plus Marianne herself. "Why do you need such a large group, anyway? Are you planning on dragging me home simply by the combined sheer force of the lot of you?" She spat on the ground, forcing the wad into the scrubbed wood floor with her heel. "If that's the case, I'm going to leave now. I'm not coming back, Marianne. I don't... I don't want to see you again."
It was dramatic, Cassandra knew, but she'd always had a flair for the theatrical. She nodded curtly. "If that's the case, Marianne, then this is our goodbye. Our final goodbye." She schooled her face into a paper mask, her eyes dull and emotionless. It wasn't that she wanted to hurt Marianne, by showing such frigidity towards her. They'd been close, once, after all. It was just that she enjoyed it so much - taunting and teasing and twisting people's minds until they forgot who they were. It made her feel almost as if it was compensation for all the pain her home had caused her by throwing her out like she was worth no more than tin foil. It wouldn't be right if she was denied the few malicious pleasures she could scrape from the bottom of the glass life had given her. Her philosophy was this: if she felt pain, others had to feel it too.
And also, she really, really dreaded going home.
Burying her head in her hands, Marianne shook wordlessly on the spot. “Gods, Cassie, what happened to you? You've changed so much I hardly recognise you anymore." She puffed out her cheeks and blew quietly, reminding herself that the Cassandra she’d known three years ago was bound to be different to the Cassandra of now. "At least meet them. The others."
Cassandra smiled, amused. “From what I remember, you were never much of a people person. It seems strange, doesn't it? Me, the solitary, glooming outsider, and you with the life of luxury, and the position in society, and all the friends. It's like time has played a trick on us both. I used to be like you, and now I'm not. It's unfair." Looking at the ground in a fixated interest, she tailed off, leaving her words unfinished. She couldn't expect everyone in her old life to have stood still in time, waiting for her to catch up to them. She could no longer expect, after all these years, to be the best and the greatest and the one adults fawned over, while everyone else trailed behind, fighting over the scraps she tossed them.
She licked her lips, nervously.
Things had changed.
Marianne threw her hands up to the heavens in exacerbation. "Cassandra. Please, Cassandra. Meet them. And - Cassie, I don't know how to say this. I - I didn't just forget I had a life when you left, and I suppose I see now that maybe you expected me to. But I didn't. That's the thing. And -"
"Coralie. It doesn't matter. You've changed. I've changed too. I'll meet them if that's what you really want me to do. Fine."
Without a sound, Marianne strode away towards the gaggle of girls, who still stood in a cluster by the speakers. Instead of following her, Cassandra waited for a while on her own, standing forlornly by the side of the dance floor. She'd grown used to being on her own, and recently she'd grown more and more accustomed to the idea that she liked it. Liked the comfortable calm, and peace, and the serenity that other people detract from.
But now, she didn't know anymore.
Marianne – the girl she’d once loved more than she’d ever loved anyone – communicated comfortably with each of the girls in the group. Cassandra could tell that even from a distance. She wondered if, three years ago, Marianne had been as happy talking to her as she seemed to be with these other girls - girls Cassandra had never even met before.
She used to know everyone, and once upon a time, everyone knew her. She was unmissable, unstoppable, a brilliant blazing comet that lit up the world with its light. It had been like that until the accident, which eventually led to her banishment from the island, her home.
Home. She savoured the word in her mind, tasting all the hues of cobalt and teal and fern she associated with it. She’d missed home so much, but it didn’t seem to have missed her at all. When she was first outcast, she hadn't known if she'd even make it a year alive. She'd heard stories, in her childhood, of sirens who lost their immortality alongside their dignity when they'd been banished, and at the time she'd paid the legends no attention. Yet when she found it was her in this position, she struggled to stop from slipping into the insufferable realms of madness this fear brought with it. She’d spent countless days, and nights, and hazy orange sunsets crying on doorsteps, searching for shelter, hungry for food. And yet, back on her island, her home, it didn’t seem like anyone had missed her that much at all. Even if they missed her, they definitely seemed capable of functioning perfectly without her presence, or assistance, or all the love her heart could offer.
Nothing could have cemented this thought as absolutely in her mind as at that moment, when Marianne bent forwards and kissed one of the three girls on the mouth. It was the slow, magnificent kiss Cassandra had been yearning for privately for three insatiable years, and it hurt her more than a hook in her eye, or a stab in the back. Which to anyone else, would have appeared as rather ironic, really.
Forgetting where she was, forgetting everything but herself and Marianne and the girl that she'd just kissed, Cassandra charged across the dance floor in a rush of uncontainable fury. She paused just in front of the girl, visibly seething as she clenched her teeth and tightened her fists into balls. "You...you..." She broke off, shaking her head in fury. "Do you know who I am? Do you know what Coralie - she's probably Marianne to you though, you revolting wench - do you know what she was to me, for years? Do you know my name? You must have, for people talk whenever anyone is exiled - and don't think I was banished for no good reason. I could skin you, you know? Or crush you between my two middle fingers like you're no more than an insect. You're less than an insect - you're the sort of worthless, good for nothing scum that I hate, that I loathe more -"
"Cassandra," warned Marianne, turning to face her former lover as the girl she'd smiled, hinting at amusement. "Cassie, you have to calm down! I tried to warn you, but you shook me off and - well, things have changed. You can see things have changed." She shrugged helplessly, looking at the other three girls in her group sympathetically: a sort of don't-mind-Cassandra-I-haven't-seen-her-for-a-while-and-she-needs-time-to-understand-that-I've-not-been-waiting-placidly-on-my-backside-for-her-these-past-three-years kind of look.
Gods, thought Cassandra, rolling her eyes. Coralie's words sounded like they'd been copied from a handbook on how to deal with broken up relationships. She sounded fake and tinny and less like a real person than the Coralie of Cassandra's memories - like she'd rehearsed this speech in front of the bathroom mirror a few days earlier.
She probably had.
Concentrating on not grinding her teeth so hard they snapped off, Cassandra curled her lips back in a disgusted scowl. "Oh, I can see that things have changed quite clearly, Coralie. I can see that perfectly well without you rushing in to point that out. I am not a mortal, and I am not you: I do not see everything through rose tinted glasses."
"My name is no longer Coralie, Cassandra," said Marianne, her lips pressing into a grim line of disapproval, streaking across her face like paint, or blood, or fury. "You cannot blame me for not waiting like a puppy dog for the past to come back. I am not a puppy dog, nor did I have any inclination to think you would be returning, or even that we would ever cross paths again. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, and come home. It is not me who wants you back, for though I have missed you I have... Others, now. It is the council, not me to whom you should direct your anger if you so detest the idea of returning home. They've requested you come, but I think they should tell you the reason why themselves - I would hardly do it justice. Just know that it is important, and would be a great honour for you." She paused, a slow hopefulness easing into her tone. "And - your mother is eager to see you."
Cassandra's mother. Like every siren she was beautiful, exquisitely so. Still, her face had been scribbled across by the pen in the hand of the eager young toddler of age, and at least when Cassandra had known her, her mother had been for so long without lover. Despite everything, though, it was pleasantly surprising that her mother wanted to see her again, when after what Cassandra had done - after her mother had found out she was to be outcast, and later the reason why - another woman could have just as easily damned and spurned Cassandra for the blemishes she'd birthed on the family tapestry.
Biting her lip, Cassandra struggled to cast these thoughts aside, reminding herself brusquely that her mother could be dead for all she knew. Marianne could be lying through her teeth in her attempts to ensure Cassandra returned home, and in doing so earn the higher respect of the council. The council. Blundering imbeciles.
Still, realised Cassandra, it worked both ways. She could lie too, and Marianne wouldn't know any different.
After all, they really didn't know each other any more.
"My mother," said Cassandra, lowering her lashes to shield her eyes and the untruths she prepared to tell. "My mother does not mean anything to me any longer, Marianne, nor do I imagine that I mean all that much to her." She sighed, flicking her eyes upwards to gauge Marianne's reaction. Casting her mind back through years with the effortless ease with which a reader will flick through the pages of a book, she remembered that she'd read once, somewhere, that the best lies were interspersed with truth. So, the truth: "Really, if I thought I'd retain a place in anyone's list of loved ones, it would be in yours."
The truth hurt.
Marianne's eyes softened, as Cassandra had known that they would. "Look, Cassie, I still love you. Maybe... Maybe not like I used to love you. I don't think I'll ever love anyone that way again. But... Well, I love Daria now, just as much as I loved you. Maybe more. And I don't want you to resent that. I want..."
Daria. Daria. Daria.
Marianne kept talking but Cassandra no longer heard it.
It didn't sound real, anyway - it was regurgitated, as if she'd swallowed every other cheesy romance book there was and then tried to badly recite them by memory, mixing and melding the words into one another.
Daria. Cassandra's eyes flashed black, channeling the coals that fuel the mortal furnaces and sparking with the crackling sea storms that terrorise sailors. She hacked through Marianne's words: her voice as glinting and fierce as it would be had it been sharpened on ice and flint and forged underneath a realm of snow. She inclined her head towards the girl Marianne had kissed so shamelessly, before stepping closer towards her. Cassandra was at least a full head shorter, but her hair seemed to blaze wintery gold under the cheery disco lighting, and she rose up on the balls of her feet in an arctic surge of cool, Nordic glory. "Your name's Daria, then? Daria - such a pretty, pretty name. It suits you. You're quite pretty yourself, really. When you get past all the layers of avaricious bitch, I mean. I can see why Coralie likes you so much, being such a whore herself -"
The girl, Daria, laced her hand through Cassandra's long hair, pulling upwards till Cassandra winced with the effort of not crying out. "You will be quiet now, koritsáki," she said slowly, her voice quiet. Her tone was soft but not mellow, and it did not sound without threat. It seemed to scrape the back of her throat as a warning, or a promise.
"Marianne kissed me, just as she once kissed you. She is mine, just as I am hers, and she was reassuring me in that kiss that even with you here, nothing will change between us both. You are selfish, and foolish too, to assume she still hopes to hold your heart. She does not care for your heart, silly girl. And if you have any respect at all for her, or for what you two once were you will call her Marianne, not Coralie. The Coralie you remember does not exist any longer." Daria bent her head down, so close that Cassandra could taste the salt of the sea on her breath. It was cold, tickling the hairs on the back of her neck till they stood rigid, on end. "And we both demand greater respect than the paltry amount you are paying us. See that you pay us the correct price and we will give you the necessary change," whispered Daria, before releasing Cassandra from her grip and stepping backwards to stand protectively beside Marianne. One of the other girls snickered quietly behind her raised hands. It was the small girl who had waved at Cassandra before, when she hadn't yet met Daria - it seemed like a lifetime ago now.
Cassandra swallowed, her breath catching, shocked into silence.
As her vision blurred and clouded, shifting gently from clarity to an underlying haze of jealous hatred, she watched Marianne smile gratefully at Daria, the two of them united, a bonded pair. Marianne shifted to face her. "Cassie...Cassie, don't cry..." She shot an anxious glance to Daria who pulled a face in response. It was embarrassing, how they seemed to look to each other for everything. How long had they been in a relationship? They seemed too good to be true, hopefully in the first stages of a couple before everything slopes downwards.
Shaking her head, Cassandra widened her eyes impatiently, blinking back the tears that came with shock, and hurt, and anger. "Don't call me Cassie."
Marianne blinked stupidly, her eyelids fluctuating between open closed open closed open closed like she was some sort of malfunctioning doll. "But- but I always called you Cassie."
"Look, er- Marianne. Daria." (She spat the latter name out as if it tasted bitter, though if Daria noticed her face remained commendably impassive.) "My name is not Cassie. I don't want you to call me Cassie and you won't any longer. I demand greater respect than the pathetic amount you're paying me. You shouldn't have come here. I don't want to see you - either of you. And I especially don't want to go back...home...with you. It's not my home - it hasn't been for three years. Stop pretending that it is."
Daria scratched her head absentmindedly, fiddling with a little butterfly hair clip that was falling out. She pouted exaggeratedly, sticking out her bottom lip in a crude imitation of a spoilt child. "Are you scared, Cassandra? Are you scared to go back home - oh, maybe its not your home, but it's mine, and I shall call it that. Is that it? Are you frightened? It's adorable, isn't it, how the big tough women all turn out to be mousy little pussy cats inside?" She hesitated a second, then tacked on, as if Cassandra hadn't understood her first words: "That's you, Cassandra. By the way. You're the mousy little pussy cat who pretends to be the big bad wolf - but all the big and the bad you pretend to be is just hopeless huff and puff to cover up the fears of a scared little girl. Sorry if I damage your ego saying this, but Gods, Cassandra, I feel sorry for you!"
Cassandra smiled humourlessly, tilting her head to one side in mockery. "Maybe. Maybe I am scared. Maybe I'm frightened of what people will think. All the more reason not to go with you. I'm not coming back, Daria, no matter what you jeer or call at me. Sorry, Coralie. Lie to the elders. Tell them I'm ill, or plagued, or already dead. I don't care." She laughed, wild and frantic, her eyes lighting up with a frenzied kind of madness. "I really don't care. About either of you. Not anymore! Go away! Be gone!" And she laughed again, throwing back her head and letting her mirth trickle down her cheeks in the form of tears, her avidity dancing the hysterical cavorts of witches from her lips. One of the nameless girls from the group leaned forwards and whispered something to Marianne, and Cassandra realised with a surge of insatiable glee that she truly didn't mind what it was the girl had said. Perhaps the girl was another of Marianne's lovers. It didn't matter. It was as if all these years she'd been handcuffed, but now the key was hers, and her chains were unlocked.
And she was free.
She liked freedom.
Marianne sighed, her down turned mouth dripping off her neck and sliding itself stickily down her body. Shaking herself in a steely determination, she tried once more to address Cassandra, to make an appeal that could somehow get through. Though she was tired of trying, and felt like nothing she said would be enough, she clasped her hands to her heart and stared at her former lover in earnest. "Cassandra, I'm so sorry. I'm so, so sorry. What happened to you? How did you cope? You're half mad, you're a husk of yourself, you're nothing, not anymore. You'd be better off dead. Oh Gods, I used to think you were glorious, you know? I was so proud of you, and I was so proud that I could know you, and love you. I was so happy you were mine. You were going to be brilliant, Cassie- Cassandra. You were brilliant, the best, and now... Gods, Cassandra, look at you. You're insane. You're not reasonable or rational... Or..." She stopped short, shivering slightly at Cassandra's inane smile.
Cassandra grinned back, each of her teeth pointed into a predator's contempt. "If I am psychotic but I run free, then I do not really mind."
Daria snorted. "You're not just psychotic, you're feral. An animal." She looked at Marianne for acknowledgement and Marianne nodded, just slightly, tilting her chin upwards as if she wasn't quite sure what she was agreeing to.
Daria grabbed hold of Cassandra's shoulder, leaning close so that her lips brushed Cassandra's ear. Her jaw stiffened, and her mouth slid open, and it was only when she was half way through the first note of her song - it didn't matter which song, for in the control of a siren every lyric ever written had the power to be the most potent and wonderful - that Cassandra noticed what was happening, her eyes widening in speechless horror.
"I really am sorry, Cassandra," she heard Marianne say, though her voice was ripped apart by colours that slipped and slid across the canvas of her mind. "I promise she won't take your mind. Or your soul. We just need to take you home, and you're not going to co-operate with us any other way." A pause. "I am sorry, Cassandra. I promise it won't hurt. I would never -"
And then Cassandra could not hear anything but the song, which Daria whispered so softly and delicately in her ear that no one but Cassandra could hear the tune or the words.
Struggling, flailing, her pulse racing faster than the throbbing heart of the music itself, Cassandra thrashed out at Daria, attempting to push her backwards. Blearily, she noted that some of the mortal party goers were clapping as Daria continued to sing - almost certainly thinking she was merely a friend of a friend who'd had a little too much to drink and had to slump over Cassandra to keep herself upright. It disgusted her, how the mortals knew so little about what really went on in their world. That they were blind even as they watched the true events of history take place before their own unseeing eyes.
Gradually, the pain of Daria's song diluted and dulled as Cassandra slipped slowly from the clutches of consciousness. The mortals probably thought she'd done something ridiculous and unnecessary, like faint. Maybe they'd try and throw vodka or ale at her to revive her, although she knew it wouldn't work. Truth be told, their ceaseless prospect of a happily ever after ending sickened her, rotted her core and moulded her flesh. Futures don't get brighter - no light source does. They get dimmer, and dimmer, and eventually they cut out.
She felt Daria stop singing - or maybe she just couldn't hear her anymore, she didn't know. All she knew - all the information she could still hold on to, as her mind swam in circles about her head, was that her name was Cassandra, and she once had loved a girl very much. The girl was called Coralie, and for a reason she couldn't remember, the name Marianne was irrevocably tied to it.
She was tired. So terribly tired. She couldn't remember anything anymore.
Cassandra closed her eyes.