Clarissa sneaked down the stairs as quickly and quietly as possible. The dormitory was only the floor below, and she was determined to reach her room without being seen by any of the other contestants. She dashed across the common room to the double doors. She pressed one open, stepped into the hall, and stopped suddenly.
There were only eight doors.
Clarissa kicked the carpet in frustration. She was going to have to knock on doors until someone agreed to help her find her room, which meant the other contestants would see how badly she was hurt.
She couldn't let that happen.
Carefully, Clarissa began scanning the nameplates on the doors. She remembered that hers had had a large, plain, curved symbol, followed by a tall thin one, and several small, stout ones. She was sure she could find the right room if she could find the right plate.
She stopped in front of a door with exactly this on the brass plate. With a sigh of relief, Clarissa turned the knob and pushed the door open.
Chenana looked up as the door opened. The surly-looking blond girl she had seen at the gathering earlier that day was standing, frozen and confused, in her doorway. The girl's face suddenly twitched into a broad, stiff smile. "Hello, I'm Clarissa. I just, um, wanted to congratulate you on making it through round one. Good luck in the next round!" She waved hurriedly with her one good arm and began closing the door.
"Wait! Wait a sec!" Chenana jumped up from her bed and took a step toward Clarissa.
Clarissa reluctantly opened the door again and looked at Chenana, the smile still plastered on her face. "Yes?"
Chenana stuck out her hand and took Clarissa's in it and gave her a strong, eager handshake. "Nice to meet you! I'm Chenana! I didn't think there'd be any friendly faces here, everyone looks and acts so mean! Are you congratulating the other contestants, too? Can I come?" Her dark blue eyes sparkled with childlike joy. Clarissa was taken aback by Chenana's enthusiasm.
"Oh, um, sorry, but you were the last person. I'm going back to my room now." She gave Chenana her best apologetic smile as she took back her hand. Her expression was an uncomfortable muddle of confusion, sorrow, and pain.
Chenana didn't seem to notice her awful lying. "Can I come with you? We can chat and get to know each other and I can braid your hair and we can trade combat techniques and tell stories, it'll be so much fun!" Her broad smile was painfully radiant.
"I was going to take a bath. I'm pretty sure you don't want to see that." Clarissa took a small step back, still trying to smile apologetically.
Chenana looked down and pointed at her arm. "No offense, but that looks like it's messed up really bad. Are you sure you don't need help? You look kind of weak and worn out, too. I don't mind helping." She looked genuinely concerned.
The girl's naïve kindness caught Clarissa by surprise. It also pissed her off.
"I'm not weak and I don't need help," she snapped. The door slammed shut in Chenana's face.
Clarissa stepped out into the hall three hours later wearing nothing but her sling beneath a soft, white bathrobe. Her hair left a faint trail of lavender in the air as she made her way to the banquet hall once again.
The small round tables had been replaced by one large table, which, although it showed clear signs of having been picked at, was still covered in mountains of food. No one else was at the table at the moment. Clarissa hummed happily to herself as she piled a plate high with candied meats and roasted vegetables. She seated herself and dug into her food with gusto, taking care not to soil her pretty white robe. She was halfway through her meal when a dejected Chenana slumped into the room.
An idea suddenly hit her.
"Chenana! My friend!" Clarissa stood up quickly and went to embrace the girl. Chenana squeaked in surprise and discomfort at Clarissa's sudden and very strong one-armed hug.
"My friend, I'm sorry for snapping at you. I was tired and hungry." She released Chenana, but kept her hand on the girl's upper arm. Clarissa looked in her eyes. "Forgive me?"
Chenana looked confused for a few moments. Her expression quickly transformed into a broad smile. "Of course I forgive you!" She gave Clarissa a quick, tight hug, unknowingly putting pressure on Clarissa's injured arm. Clarissa bit her tongue to stop herself from yelping in pain.
Chenana released her and took a step back. "I didn't mean to interrupt your dinner, I'm sorry." She glanced anxiously at Clarissa's half-empty plate.
"It's fine." Clarissa beamed. It looked much more natural than before. She had practiced in her bathroom mirror for nearly an hour before leaving her room.
She gestured at the empty chair beside hers. "Sit by me."
Chenana nodded eagerly and pulled it out. "Okay!"
Clarissa smiled again and sat down as Chenana began serving herself. She picked up the unused fork beside her plate and held it awkwardly, carefully stabbing a large slice of meat as she spoke. "Who'd you fight in the last round?" She was genuinely curious.
"A pirate girl. She had blue hair and a big black eye patch and she looked kinda pudgy," Chenana said cheerfully as she spooned mashed potatoes onto her plate.
"Ah." Clarissa was pleased to hear this. She had never intended to repay the woman for reading the letter to her, but it still made her happy and gave her a bit of relief to know she was dead. She nodded at Chenana. "Congratulations."
Chenana sat down. "What about you, who'd you fight?"
"A woman in black." Clarissa grimaced. She leaned a little towards Chenana. "Did you get your letter already?"
Chenana nodded vigorously and swallowed her food quickly. "Yep. It was on my bed when I got back. I think it's actually pretty cool that we get to choose where we fight next round."
Clarissa smirked a tiny bit. "I see. What time does it start?"
Chenana looked her quizzically. "I thought you got a letter too?"
Clarissa shook her head.
"Oh, okay. It's at noon tomorrow, same place we all started last time."
Clarissa nodded. "I see." She paused for a second. "So what's your story? Why are you here?"
As she suspected, Chenana began rambling about her life. Clarissa nodded and pretended to pay attention while she ate, but her mind was elsewhere.
She weighed the pros and cons of the two arenas she had already visited. She was more familiar with the mountains, and the soil would make her opponent easier to track. But it offered little protection, and very few hiding spots. The city wasn't nearly as familiar to her, and she wouldn't be able to track anything in a concrete jungle, but the potential weapon alternatives and plethora of hiding spots would be excellent to have available. Of course, her opponent would be able to share these features with her, which could possibly leave her at a disadvantage.
She continued evaluating both areas as she finished her food. Finally, she came to a decision. Clarissa stabbed the last vegetable on her plate with satisfaction and ate it. She tuned back in to Chenana. The dumb thing was still blathering happily. She put her fork down.
"I'm going. I need to sleep."
Chenana stopped in midsentence and beamed. "It was nice talking to you!"
Clarissa nodded and stood. "Good night."
"Sweet dreams!" Chenana called as Clarissa exited the banquet hall.
Clarissa waited until she had reached her room before she let out exhausted groan. She crawled onto her now much bigger and much softer bed, and buried her face in the blanket.
Interacting with Chenana had been more tiring than she thought it would be. It felt like the girl had sucked all her energy away just by speaking at her.
She let out a long, grumpy moan. She hadn't really talked to anyone in so long, she had forgotten how people drained her.
Remind me to never talk to anybody ever again.
The thought echoed loudly in her head. She waited for Maria's snarky response.
Clarissa turned her face up so she could breathe more easily and closed her eyes. She was snoring gently in a matter of minutes.