It had been a week since I killed Daxus. I had been happy afterwards, and I even took to sneaking out of the mansion and burying the body myself, as a sign of finality. On my way back, however, I heard Claude and Sebastian arguing. This did not strike me as strange, seeing as that was all they ever did, until I heard my name.
"How dare you?" I had heard Sebastian growl, "What a disgrace you are! I am ashamed simply being in your presence!"
"Do not breathe a word of this to anyone, do you understand?" Claude said. I had never heard him so panicked.
"How can I? My tongue would burn with the poisonous nature of the words! My own brother, in love with our master's ward!"
At this point I had nearly fallen out of the tree I was hiding in. Trembling from shock, I returned to the castle, pretending as though I did not hear anything. In the days that followed, I avoided Claude as much as I could. I did not eat anything he brought me, but instead stole fruit and raw meat from the kitchen and went to the lake, frying the meat on Appoloin's sword. I awoke each morning just as the sun rose and went straight to kitchen and then the lake, where I trained throughout the whole day with my two angel friends, Appoloin and Manakel, or messed around with the strange and dangerous creatures living in the forest.
It happened once or twice that Claude came looking for me, but my angel friends flew me into the forest to hide.
Because the Spirits had returned to their homes, the weather everywhere returned to normal, and because we were in the Forgotten Country at the edge of the Country of South, the weather became considerably colder. It now had roughly the same climate as the Village of Water, but somehow the mansion stayed warm.
Fighting with Tio boosted my confidence levels up tenfold, and within another week I was on equal grounds as each Appoloin and Manakel, but I still had a little difficulty fighting them both at the same time, so I Summoned another angel by the name of Elemiah.
One morning, at dawn, I had been on the point of getting out of bed when I heard my door open and close. I sat up sharply, aiming to grab Tio, but a hand gripped mine to prevent me. It was Claude.
"What are you doing here?" I growled out of instinct. I did not mean to be rude.
"I know you have been sneaking out at dawn, my lady," he said, "So came here before you could do so."
"I haven't been sneaking out," I said, looking down.
"Then what is the term you would like to use, my lady? Have you been avoiding me?"
"Of course not," I lied. "Did you bring me breakfast?"
"Yes," he said, turning back to reveal a food trolley, "I have prepared eggs and toast with Earl Grey tea, my lady."
I thanked him softly before starting to eat. He walked to the other side of the room and opened the curtains, letting in the now feeble sunlight, and dusted off the windows before picking up the clothes littering the floor, and summoned a maid to take them away for washing. When I finished I placed my plate and cup on the food trolley.
He took the trolley and exited the room. I ran my fingers through my hair before getting up, taking a shower and getting dressed. I forced the water out of my hair and left it loose and slightly curly as always. When I returned to my room, Claude was busy dusting every available furnace. I walked over to the mirror, put eyeliner and maroon lip-gloss on and fell down on my bed. Was use was it sneaking out if he already knew where I was?
I still did not figure out what to do. How was I supposed to make a servant not be in love with me when he was charged with seeing to my every need?
Just try not to think about it, Dark said unhelpfully.
“Yeah, because it's that easy,” I replied sarcastically.
“Pardon me?” Claude said, turning to face me.
“Nothing,” I replied, embarrassed that I had spoken aloud.
“My lady, there will be a visitor shortly," he informed me when he finished.
"What does that have to do with me?" I asked.
"Lord Niklaus requested that you drink tea with him and his - ahem - brother."
"Can't someone else go in my place?" I asked, "Please, just let Aurora take my place, or tell him to make one of the maids dress up formally."
"He has specifically requested that you pose as his partner," he said.
"Fine," I groaned, "When will they arrive?"
"In an hour," he replied. “You can meet the master downstairs in an hour.
"Whatever," I said, "Is it just his brother that's coming?"
"And the boy's father."
I did not feel like staying in my room for an hour, so I followed Claude without a word. After a while, I knew he was beginning to feel uncomfortable as he pressed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. I followed him down the stairs and into the kitchen, where a few maids were preparing food. They glanced at us as we entered, but as their eyes fell on me they pointedly turned back to their work.
He poured water into the sink and dishwashing liquid. I smirked. I was going to watch Claude wash the dishes? I watched as he prepared ingredients for a cake while the water was running, and mixed them into a bowl so fast his hands were literally just a blur. He put the bowl into the oven and stopped the water at the sink, then pulled off his white gloves. To my surprise, his nails were long and painted black, and there were symbols painted in gold on them, similar to those around my Mark. He started washing the plates and cups. I stood closely beside him, glancing over his shoulder.
Just as he was about to put the last plate away, I seized my chance, "You missed a spot," I lied.
I saw him stiffen slightly before silently washing the plate again and placing it on the rack. He turned back around and went over to the oven, with me tailing him all the while, and checked on the cake before walking over to another counter and making tea and pouring it into the teapot. He glanced at me uncomfortably before putting four cups each on top of a saucer, on a tray and placing it on yet another counter. He took the cake out and decorated it with the same speed with which he had made it and placed it on the tray as well, along with four more saucers and four teaspoons, and exited the kitchen.
I followed Claude outside, where he placed the tray on a low wall and draped it with a net-like cloth that he had pulled from the inside of his jacket, and re-entered the mansion. I stared while he lifted a large round table with one hand and disappeared with a gust of wind and a dark blur. He returned four more times, and every time one of the four chairs that had been standing beside the table disappeared, finally walking at a human pace once more while he carried the last of the four chairs. He took a white tablecloth that had been lying on the fireplace and I followed him outside once more, past the statue of the woman curled with snakes, where he had placed the round table so that it looked over the frozen lake in the distance. He put down the chair in the empty spot and placed the tray with the cake and tea on the table.
"Won't they be cold out here?" I asked. I was perfectly at ease in this weather.
"They do not mind cold, my lady," he replied, then looked up sharply, "They have arrived."
I followed Claude as he walked around the mansion to the front, where there was a red and white carriage with white horses matching the snow. Niklaus was standing in the shade, even though the sunlight was feeble, watching while a strange-looking person was climbing out of the coach.
It had really long blonde eyelashes that I could even see from here, blue eyes, blonde hair, and glasses with a beaded string that went around its neck. It wore a long black coat, a black waistcoat, black trousers, a black T-shirt, a stripy blue and white bowtie and its teeth were all sharp.
"Is that a male or a female?" I whispered to Claude.
"It is Lord Niklaus's brother."
"Are you sure, because that doesn't look like it's a male or a female," I said.
"Do not be disrespectful, my lady," he said just as a short, fat man got out of the coach. Niklaus exchanged greetings, carefully staying in the shade, and his face lifted as he saw me.
"Ah, this is Lady Victoria," he said, holding out his hand. I took it, and he kissed me on my cheek, causing me to blush. I forced a smile as the fat man and his son/daughter each kissed my hand, "This is my - ahem – half-brother, Lee, and his father Jack."
"Oh, Lady Victoria!" Lee said dramatically, "I have heard so many rumours! You really are as beautiful as they say and - oh, Sebastian!"
I watched with wide eyes as Lee ran around me on tiptoes, up the steps, and wrapped his arms around Sebastian's neck, who had just arrived.
"I've missed you so much, Sebby!" Lee said, brushing his cheek against that of an irritable-looking Sebastian.
"Welcome back, Master Lee," Sebastian said grumpily.
"It has been so long, Sebby! Can't I get a kiss? Just one?" Lee cooed, and made to press his lips roughly to Sebastian's. I pulled a face of disgust, but luckily Sebastian swiftly pulled away from his grip and walked toward where I stood beside Claude, causing Lee to fall over forwards and land on his forehead on the steps.
"You really ought to be more careful, Master Lee," Sebastian said carelessly, standing beside Claude.
"Are you sure that's a male?" I hissed to Claude, soft enough so that only the butlers could hear. Sebastian smirked.
"Let us drink some tea," Niklaus said deliberately. Jack and Lee - who miraculously did not seem hurt - followed us around the mansion to the round table.
Niklaus and I sat down in the shade while Lee continued fussing over Sebastian and Jack stood looking out over the forest and, beyond it, the frozen lake.
“May I ask you something?” I asked softly.
“It’s a delicate matter … well, about the ritual.”
His face hardened, but his tone was blank. “What about it?”
“What was it all about? Explain it to me, please.”
He took a deep breath before speaking. “I have a rival in this world, only one rival. Not your father, but another man, one with a much darker background. In order to outlive him, I need to be completely invincible. I tracked down Lord Autumn and he confessed that he had grown fond of a human. Millennia of overseeing the Country of East has made him grown weary, and he agreed to help me develop a ritual which would strip them of their powers and turn them into humans. He then convinced the other two Spirits to join me, but Lady Winter is stubborn. You know the rest. I shall simply have to find another way to become invincible.”
After the two freaks had left, I spent the rest of the day in my room. After simply lying on my bed for an hour, I grew bored and decided to comb through my family’s things. Most were stacked at odd places all around the room: I had not thought about tidying up since I came here, so I decided to do so.
When I had finished, an entire rack on the large shelf against the wall opposite my bed was dedicated to fairly sacred-looking things: strange swords and throwing daggers that I had no recollection of, journals from the older members of my family: my grandfather, his brother, Nina and Mona’s great-grandfather, and my mother’s great-aunt. They were all people who were thought the wisest in our family. There was leather battle gear and travelling cloaks, and an entire collection of Summoning scrolls. Finally, right at the bottom of the last box, I saw two black scabbards. I reached out toward them.
Suddenly, an explosion of power knocked me over backward, and blue light filled my room so brightly that I had to shield my eyes.
“Could it be?” I breathed, running the possibility through my mind. There were a few, soft knocks on my door, and I realised that someone must have felt the power, too. “Don’t come in! I’m fine!”
Gradually, the light dimmed until it was nothing but a faint blue glow. I looked around me manically, wondering how I was going to pick the weapons up. They had looked to be the shapes of daggers. My eyes came to rest on a vase full of flowers on my bedside cabinet. I got up and threw the flowers out.
I took a deep breath and willed the water out of the vase, directing it toward the box until I could feel my Ceilos closing in on the two objects. The water served as my hands, and with it, I pulled the scabbards.
I was looking at the most beautiful set of ornately decorated daggers I had ever laid eyes on. The hilts were all shades of blue, and the blades gleamed even in the sunlight. As I studied the blades, Tobias’s face flashed in my mind more clearly than it ever had.
“Spirit Blades,” I breathed, grinning.
Finally, late in the afternoon, I got fed up with myself and decided to go annoy Claude. I went downstairs to the entrance hall, where he was busy dusting the sconces. I took a blood red rose from the bunch of flowers in a pot underneath the sconce he was dusting.
"I think you'd look better with a rose as an accessory," I said, suppressing a grin while pulling the thorns and leaves from the stem and letting them fall to the floor.
He ignored me, picking up the leaves and thorns and throwing them back with the other flowers, so I broke off the stem and walked over to his other side, where his fringe was not as thick - as the untidy hair was made in a side path - and placed the rose over his ear. He still ignored me and went over to the next sconce with the rose on his ear.
"It looks good," I lied. I stared at him for a long moment, waiting for him to grow annoyed, but when no expression appeared on his face, I winked at him, reached upward and took his glasses, letting the rose fall to the floor, and placed them over my eyes just as he reached down and picked the rose back up.
"Holy damn, Claude, you're blind!" I cried, trying to make sense of the warping and blurring.
"Careful, my lady," he said, wrapping his hand around my waist. "You're going to fall."
I glared at him, forcing my face to be expressionless and deliberately pressed the glasses up the bridge of my nose in an imitation of him, and then shrugged, "This does feel good. I can see why you do it all the time."
I took the glasses off but held onto them. He stared at me for a moment, "Will you please return my glasses, my lady?"
"No, I'm going to keep them," I said, exiting the room and making my way to mine. I went over to my window and stared out at the grounds, clutching the glasses. After a while, I pulled out all the clips from my hair, loosening it. I turned around at the sound of my door opening and closing to see Claude entering, without the rose.
"I am sure you wanted me to follow you," he said softly.
"I didn't, actually," I said. I sighed, walked forward and placed the glasses on Claude's nose again. He stared at me as intently as ever. Knowing that he might be expecting me to kiss him, I leaned forward ever so slowly.
I saw his muscles stiffen and, for the first time ever, I saw emotion creeping onto his face. Fear. His cheeks reddened a shade. When our lips were an inch from touching, I deliberately kissed his nose before turning on my heel and exiting the room.
That ought to send the message quite clearly. I hoped that he would think that I was toying with him. No man in his right mind would go for a girl who toys with guys.
Just as I reached the middle of the corridor - I had decided to go to the library - Aurora stopped in front of me, a look of pure hatred on her face. I had not even noticed her until then.
"The hell are you staring at?" I snapped.
"I will kill you. I can't believe what a whore you are," she said. Before I could think of defending myself she slashed her hand upward and a sharp gust of wind cut through the skin on my cheek. I growled angrily and punched her in the face with a Ceilos-enhanced fist. She fell over backwards, clutching a bleeding nose.
"Touch me again and you will end up exactly like Daxus," I growled, my happy mood forgotten, "Niklaus doesn't need you for the ritual anymore, remember?"
Pulling a face in disgust, I returned to my room, slamming the door behind me. I gasped in fright and surprise when I saw Claude was still sitting on my bed. He stood up when he saw me, blankly staring at the sight of my bloody cheek.
"Take care of this," I said irritably, pointing to my cheek and sitting down at the edge of my bed.
"How?" he asked softly.
"However the hell you want," I snapped.
I was angry at the moment: with myself, with Aurora and Claude, with Niklaus and everything in between. I glanced up at Claude and froze with surprise when I saw that he was standing right in front of me, cupping my unwounded cheek in his hand. I started trembling when he leaned in, fearing he was going to kiss me, but he licked the blood from my cheek, sending chills through my body.
I watched as his expression turned from blank to complete shock. His eyes went wide and I could have sworn they had a second-long red gleam in them. He recovered himself before I could ask him what was wrong. He placed his hands on my shoulders and pulled me up. I was confused, to say the least.
He pulled me into an embrace, and I could feel his body trembling against mine. He bowed slightly until his face was wedged in the folds in my neck.
I felt a sharp pain followed by a sense of pure euphoria. I was lost for several moments in the strange sensation, before I was overwhelmed by panic. I pulled away.
The sharp pain returned for a brief moment, and Claude licked over the place it hurt, causing the pain to cease instantly.
"What do you think you're doing?" I demanded, fearing that he might have given me a love-bite. Why had I allowed it?
"I must go. Lord Niklaus is coming," he said, avoiding my question and looking toward the window and the sky outside which, to my surprise, was darkening. "I will return in the morning."
"Why is Niklaus coming here?" I asked in panic.
"I do not know," he said, "I must go now."
"Wait, could you just take the corselet off" I asked, "It's hurting me."
I got up and let him take the corselet off, and I watched him exit the room, and walked to the window, letting the cold breeze ease my burning cheeks. I had failed so terribly in trying to avoid Claude.
Taking a deep breath, I dressed in my pyjamas, and finished not a moment too soon. I turned around when I heard three knocks on my door.
"Yeah?" I called.
It opened, revealing none other than Niklaus, dressed in his usual black robes, his long black hair loose for once.
"Good evening, my lady," he said pleasantly.
"Good evening, my lord," I replied. "Why are you here??
"I thought I would pay you a visit. We interact so seldom, and I felt that it was time that changed.”
"Is that so?" I said, not knowing what else to say. I become annoyed after a short while. Aurora had left me irritated, and so did Claude's strange behaviour. “Can I help you with something?”
I had spoken with quite a rude tone, which I did not really use intentionally. Before I could finish blinking, I was pressed painfully against the wall beside the chest of drawers, and he was gripping my throat tightly, his expression twisted into one of hateful anger, his canines - which had not bothered me once before - suddenly menacing. I felt my heart exhilarating, my knees numbing. I groped desperately to both sides for a weapon, but none came in reach.
“I … I’m sorry,” I stuttered, but neither his hold on my neck nor the intensity of his gaze lowered.
The weight and power of both his stare and his voice sent my blood boiling and made a lump form in my throat. I started trembling with fear. My head began spinning.
Suddenly there were three knocks on the door, and Niklaus released the hold on my throat, instead placing his hand on my waist.
"Stay just like this," he said, still holding me to the wall. I fought not to choke on my breath. Sapphire entered the room. She gasped slightly with wide eyes as her gaze fell on us, but lowered instantly. The eye-patch she wore was because her eye had been gouged out by Niklaus because she had looked directly at him.
"What is it?" Niklaus asked irritably.
"I just - I mean - my lord-“
"Speak clearly," he ordered.
"Yes, my lord," she said fearfully, "There are people here to see you, my lord. They say it's urgent, my lord."
"Who are they?"
"It's - it's Master Blackbeard and his family, my lord, and they've been escorted by Manson, my lord," she said, fumbling with the folds of her dress, "They seek an audience with you, my lord."
"I know why they are here," Niklaus said, taking his elbow from under my chin, allowing me proper breath, "Prepare a room for the Blackbeard family, and tell Manson to look under the Bridge of Light and Dark. It is there."
"Y-yes, my lord," she said.
"Before you leave," I said deliberately as she made to hurry away, and she returned reluctantly, "You couldn't have known Lord Niklaus was here. Have you come for a message to me, as well?"
"Sapphire,” Niklaus said dangerously.
"High King Lunarian has managed to breach the defences, but I stopped him, and he requested a meeting with Lady Victoria, my lord. He said that, if I let anyone else know, he was going to kill me." She glanced nervously at Niklaus.
"Will he never learn?" I breathed in exasperation.
"Go to the graves and take Daxus's bandage from his eye," Niklaus said, "Then tell Lunarian what Lady Victoria did to him, and that the same is going to happen to him if I ever find out he tried to step on my grounds again."
"The - the graves, my lord?" she asked timidly.
"Take Sebastian with you, for safety, but do not let him be seen," he said.
"Yes, my lord!" she said, and disappeared from the room.
Niklaus turned to stare at me again, and I tried to look down, but he gripped my throat again, not attempting to crush it, but simply holding it, forcing me to look into his eyes. Tears of fear threatened to start forming in my eyes, but then he spoke.
"There is a strange scent in the air," he said softly. I stared at him. Had he gone mad? He lifted my chin with his thumb and ran his nose along the length of my neck, making me panic.
"Claude has bitten you," he said, his voice so full of anger I felt a chill run down my spine.
"He didn't bite me," I said, confused.
"The mark is there, too faint for human eyes to see, but it is there," he said, "And there's no doubt about the smell."
"What are you talking about?" I asked, and his eyes widened.
"So you not know - about me?"
"You're scaring me, damn it!" I said, barely able to fight the tears any more. As it was, my voice trembled awfully.
He sighed. "I told you, on your first day, that you must think about the reason for the sunset curfew if you wish to know what Claude is," he said, "Claude and I are roughly the same, and so is Sebastian."
"You look human, so I don't really care what you are."
"It would comfort all three of us if you knew," he said. "Think about the curfew, why do I always stay in the shade, and why is my skin so cold? I am sure you have seen the gleam in my eye if I come near too much blood."
"What, you're a vampire?" I asked sarcastically. His expression was completely serious, telling me all I needed to know. My heart began hammering even worse. "You're a vampire?"
"Please, my lady, do not repudiate us. We wish you no harm."
I did not know how to respond. As if I did not fear him enough already, now he turned out to be a blood-sucker, too? I decided that, if I came across as admiring, I might have a longer life. "That's so cool!" I said.
"So that's why people who defy the curfew are killed," I continued, nodding in understanding, "They're eaten, aren't they?"
"Not eaten, drained of-"
"And the times when there is no curfew," I interrupted, "You drink blood in the afternoon to make sure you're satisfied throughout the evening, yeah? Oh, my God, this is so cool! I can't believe-"
"-that I know three vampires and I never even picked up the signs!" I said.
"Why did you allow Claude to bite you?" he asked. My voice caught in my throat, and my blood boiled with fear.
"I told you," I said, keeping my voice as steady as was possible, "I didn't know. He caught me by surprise. Hey, you said the mark is barely visible to human eyes. Does the bite, like, heal right after it's made?"
"The saliva of a vampire has healing properties," he replied.
I suddenly remembered that Claude had licked the blood from the wound that Aurora had made, and my hand flew to my cheek, "But then - that's so cool."
I felt no mark, and it did not hurt.
“Now you know what I am,” he told me flatly. I looked up at him, wondering whether I should be afraid or comforted. “Do not disrespect me again.”
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