As Cassandra jolted awake, nightmares that she couldn't quite remember whispering from the dark corners of her mind, the first thing she felt was confusion. She didn't remember falling asleep. The last thing she recalled, she had been standing in front of Delilah, listening intently as her lady lectured her on the responsibilities that would soon be hers.
Then... nothing. Nothing but darkness.
"Ah. I see that our sleeping beauty has awakened."
Cassandra spun towards the sound of Delilah's voice, wavering slightly as the world spun around her. She was in her own quarters, she realized, resting in her own bed. She had been on top of the coverlet, though, not under it. Which was an oddity, something that needed to be explored, but not just then. Not when the lady of Whitestone was standing there waiting one her.
"Lady Briarwood," Cassandra said, hurriedly straightening up. Delilah was standing in the doorway of the room, watching her with a carefully blasé look on her face.
Cassandra recognized that look. It was the one that the Lady always wore when she was waiting to see if someone was going to pass or fail a test that had been put before them.
"I'm sorry, my lady," Cassandra said, pushing herself up off the bed so that she was standing and then immediately dropped down to her knees. The movement wasn't quite as graceful as she would have liked, but she hoped that the intent was clear. "I don't remember what happened."
For a long moment, there was nothing but silence. Cassandra purposefully kept her head down, not looking up. Not without permission.
Then she heard footsteps.
Cassandra took as deep a breath as she dared, forcing herself not to react when Delilah reached down to rest her hand under her chin, raising her face towards hers.
Delilah didn't look displeased. She looked almost curious as she tilted Cassandra's face upwards some more, clearly looking for something as she ran her eyes over her face.
Then she smiled, just slightly. It barely counted as one, more like a tiny upward tick at the corner of her mouth than anything else. Still, it was enough to steal Cassandra's breath away, not to mention enough to send warmth pooling low in her stomach. It was rare to see even the smallest smile aimed in her direction.
"I'm afraid that you were dead, my darling child."
Cassandra froze, the words that had just come out of her lady's mouth echoing in her mind. She startled slightly, despite her best intentions, and she immediately braced herself for punishment. She was a Briarwood. Such uncouth behavior was inappropriate, no matter what she had just been told.
Delilah simply chuckled and traced Cassandra's face with her hand.
"I don't understand, Lady Briarwood," Cassandra said softly, not quite meeting Delilah's gaze. She knew better than to look her straight in the eyes. It wasn't proper.
Nor was it safe.
"It was a terrible tragedy," Delilah said, her voice sounding almost amused. "One of the servants found a magical device, and they set it loose in the room that we were in. Both they and yourself were killed, I'm afraid."
It was a lie. That much Cassandra knew instantly. She could read it in the older woman's face, hear it in her tone of voice and see it from her posture. Oh, she had died. But not the way that Delilah was claiming. Of that much she was certain.
And yet she wouldn't call her out on it. If her lady had gone to the trouble of telling her a story, then there must be a reason for it. She wouldn't lie to her otherwise, not about something so important as life and death. It was a test of some sort. There wasn't any other explanation. She was being tested, although she didn't quite know why.
That didn't change the fact that she had apparently died.
Cassandra couldn't help but stare, no matter how inappropriate it was for someone of her station. "But I'm not—" She took a shaky breath, forcing herself to steady as best she could. "How did I return to life?"
A series of long lost faces flashed in her mind for just a moment, ones she hadn't thought of in years. Dark hair and eyes that resembled her on stared accusingly at her. Why did you come back when we did not? She pushed them back down into the darkness where they belonged. She wasn't a de Rolo any longer. They had betrayed her when they had turned their back on Whitestone, fighting back against the Briarwoods instead of joining with them as they should have. Everything the lord and lady had done had been for the sake of the city, after all.
Everything. It was all based in love. Love for family. Love for Whitestone. If the de Rolos hadn't fought back, they would have realized that.
She was a Briarwood now. She had earned her place at their side, watching over her people and protecting them. She kept them safe, as was her duty.
Delilah's hand moved upward, brushing her cheek again before moving back to tuck a loose strand of hair behind Cassandra's ear.
"Did you truly think I would let you stay dead, if there was any way within my power to keep you at my side?" Delilah asked, leaning down to press a kiss against Cassandra's forehead. Her skin burned where her lady's lips touched it.
"Of course not, my lady," Cassandra said quickly. Her face flushed with embarrassment at even considering such a thing for a moment. "I'm sorry. I should not have doubted you or your magic."
Cassandra could feel Delilah's mouth twisting into a smile as she pulled her lips away from her forehead and moved downward, pressing another kiss against Cassandra's neck. This one was more forceful, not enough to bruise but only just shy of it.
She didn't think it would be such a terrible thing if it did leave a bruise. A tiny mark, showing everything who saw it just who Cassandra Briarwood belonged to. But it was not her place to ask for such a thing, any more than it was for her to ask what had truly happened in the time between her memories ending and her waking up alone on her bed.
"I'm glad to see that you are doing better, my dear," Delilah said, pulling away and letting her gaze move carefully over Cassandra again. "You look very well for someone who was not alive only a few hours ago. I'm quite impressed."
Cassandra flushed again, but this time it was from something other than shame. The praising words went straight through her, and she wanted nothing more than to bask in their warmth.
Delilah smiled at her. "Yes," she repeated, her eyes moving up and down Cassandra's body as if she was taking in a secret that only she knew, "so very impressed. You are everything that I could have hoped for in a daughter."
She reached out and ran her finger down the side of Cassandra's face, moving onto her neck and hovering for a moment over the spot where she had kissed her. Her smile grew a bit wider, and a bit more secretive. As if she knew something that Cassandra didn't and reveled in that fact.
Cassandra forced herself to stay still, schooling her face the best she could so as to not show how much her lady's proximity was affecting her. If the lady was proud of her, then she was going to do her best not to make her lose that pride.
Delilah smiled, almost as if she could read Cassandra's mind. Then she leaned in and pressed her lips against Cassandra's in a rough kiss that was almost bruising. No, not rough. Possessive. Proud.
"You will be perfect," Delilah whispered against her lips, not even bothering to pull away or break the kiss in order to speak. "You will make all of our dreams come true."
Cassandra couldn't help but smile at the thought.