As per our agreement, King Lunarian agreed that my identity would remain anonymous, that I would be advertised as a simple potion-making girl, named Mina, who had heard that Lady Victoria was ill, and had offered help. Lord Niklaus had given me enough money for a third class room at the inn for two weeks. I hoped this would be enough time. I did not want to think about what would happen to me if I turned up at the mansion empty-handed.
The king had assembled a few of his best Doctors to help me with the draught I was supposed to be making, seeing as he did not have any alchemists. It was not a very popular field in the Country of South.
"Your majesty," I said in greeting, standing before the king in his office. He really was handsome, and I could see exactly in the way he acted, why Lady Victoria would be attracted to him: he was protective and strong, but at the same time gentle and caring. "Are there any rare herbs in this village?"
"Not that I know of, Sapphire," he said with a hint of annoyance. He seemed immersed in the documentation that lay before him on the table. "I never studied to be a Doctor. Demetri should be able to help you."
Not having a clue who this Demetri was, I asked, "And where can I find him?"
"In the square. He is busy with a training session with the village. If you would excuse me."
I was an expert at taking hints, so with a curtsy, I left the room.
I was all but lost within moments. I had no idea why this place was called a 'village' when it was bigger than any city that I had ever heard of. And there were rumours that Lady Victoria had once ran the entire perimeter of the village to train for an exam. My admiration for her had increased even more when I had heard this.
"Excuse me," I said to a passer-by, a merry looking boy with blonde hair with a lot of bracelets and armbands.
"Can I help?" he asked politely.
"Yes, can you direct me to the square, where the villagers are training?"
"Sure, follow me. I'm headed there anyway," he said, a bright grin colouring his boyish features, "Are you new here?"
"Not exactly," I said, "I'm visiting."
"No, I ..." I hesitated, wondering what I should say.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to pry," he said with a warm smile, "Your business is your own. My name is Noram, what's yours?"
"Mina," I lied fluently. The boy's name sounded oddly familiar, and I found myself wondering where I had heard it before.
"That's a nice name. What are you going to the square for, anyway, if youíre only visiting?"
"Business. I wish to meet with a Doctor named Demetri."
"Oh, he's my teacher!" he said excitedly, "Whatever your troubles are, he would be your answer. Not only is he a Doctor, he's a Triggersmith and a Knight too. He knows every kind of herb, gun and sword. It scares me a little."
He gave a hearty laugh, and I found myself smiling. It was nice to be around someone so cheerful for once, and for a moment, I forgot my troubles.
"Here we are," he said.
I was looking at a square ten times bigger than the one I had grown up in, with a majestic fountain in the centre, around which perhaps four hundred people, male and female and of all ages, were clustered, following basic combat movements that were directed by two men at the front. One was wearing a bandanna with an Animos metal plate attached to it, and the other one I recognized. It was the annoying brat who had tried to stop me from getting to the king the day before.
"Which one is Demetri?" I asked Noram.
"Four-eyes," he replied, "Anyway, I'll see you around."
"See you," I said, my head hanging. Why did the person I was looking for have to be a four-eyed brat with moles on his face?
While I waited, I took to observing the movements the villagers were learning. I nearly hung my head again. The movements were so primitive that I was sure Alice could take out the entire village single-handedly.
I wondered why so many were here, and such amateurs. Not a single village defending Lord Niklaus's mansion would look like this. Every warrior with a snake on a banner was worthy of Animos title. Here ... I feared these people would be wiped out within minutes should unexpected war break out. I found myself wondering why the Shadows did not simply strike now.
Before I knew it, a snowstorm started and the training session ended. I thought, only for a moment, that I heard a whisper being carried with the wind.
As the people dispersed, I made my way forward and caught up with the boy named Demetri.
"What are you doing here?" he asked me, without greeting.
"Hello," I said, letting the word drip with sarcasm, "King Lunarian has sent me to you. He believes that you might be of some use to me."
"I don't help people who break the law."
"Listen to me," I said, grabbing him by the arm and using Lord Niklaus's favourite tactic - a glare that is so intense that people could not help but look away. It was what I often did to the maids at the mansion. I could see a vein popping out of his temple. "I know that you were friends with Victoria Black. I am here to find a cure for her illness. If you ever wish to see her again, you will help me."
"Are you threatening me?" he growled.
"Do you want me to?"
"Is there a problem here?" a voice said. I looked toward it and saw the man with the bandanna who had co-run the training session.
"I am under orders from the king," I told the man, "Demetri is to help with something medical."
"Well, then, go on, Goody-Two-Shoes," the man said, clapping Demetri on the shoulder before walking away.
"How do you know Victoria?"
"Everyone knows her," I snapped, "And everyone also already seems to know that she is ill. I came here because I have expertise both as a Doctor and an alchemist, and there are herbs that grow in this village that might be of use to me; herbs that only grow here, and have excellent healing properties. I need you to help me find them."
"They're at the base of the High Tower," he said irritably, "And let go of my arm this instant."
"Only if you promise to help me," I challenged.
"Do not test me," he warned.
"Do not underestimate me," I retorted, "I have Victoria's best interests at heart, and I have trained more in a month than you seem to have in a year. Do not think that I cannot take you down should the need arise. You will help me find these herbs, or so the Spirits help me, I will torture it out of you."
"I already told you!" he snapped, "They're at the base of the High Tower!"
"There's a whole freaking garden at the base of the High Tower!" I snapped, remembering all the differently coloured flowers and differently shaped leaves of at least a dozen different plants. "Give me your word that you will help me!"
"Fine!" he said, panting, "Fine, I give you my word that I will do whatever it takes to help Victoria."
I let go of his arm and gave him a look of slight disgust. Was he seriously in love with her? Did he actually think that she would ever notice him? Geez, everyone seemed to be in love with her. This thought made me smile, but it turned out as a smirk.
"Let's get to work, then."
I really did not like this boy. He got on my nerves with everything he did: the way he walked, the way his nose always stayed high in the air, the two small moles on his face, his neat tie and the fact that his shirt was tucked in. But I needed his aid in helping my Lady Victoria. I would do anything to help her. I was indebted to her family.
They were plotting against me. I knew it. I just could not pinpoint exactly what it was they were trying to do.
Was it the fact that they locked me in my room with those terrifying pictures of blood and torture and thorns and wolves? Or that they repeatedly tried to stab a needle into my arm, which would send an unknown substance pulsing through my veins? Or perhaps that they stared at me whenever they got the chance? Hundreds of different eyes? Was it hate in them? Hunger?
Or was it the food they served me? Was its delicious appearance some sort of disguise, hiding some unknown poison? Or even those serving them - no matter how much I told myself that the butlers meant me no harm, what they were kept haunting my dreams. A vampire cannot always contain their hunger. At some point during their lives they lose control and attack the nearest thing with blood-filled veins.
I was helpless. I could not run. I could not hide. My body was too weak, and I knew that, if I got out of bed, my muscles would tear and my Ceilos system would explode. At least, that was what it sounded like when Claude had explained it to me.
I forced myself to eat the food they brought me, and even though I could not detect any foreign tastes, I was still apprehensive - perhaps the poison took time to take effect.
Morrow Obsidian's offer came to mind.
I did not know what to do anymore. Nothing seemed to go my way. I had hoped that Sapphire's appearance would mean that some kind of alliance would form between Klaus and myself - even though I would like it no more than he, Lady Winter's storms were threatening to destroy the lower town's houses - but it turned out that his actions were once again simply selfish. The only reason she was here was to find some rare herbs so that he could tend to Victoria himself.
I called into the wind each night, but Lady Winter simply responded with an icy slap to my face. I begged her to try and bargain with Fate, if such a thing existed, to try and stop him from allowing Morrow Obsidian's plans to become reality.
If Fate really did exist, and he was as powerful as Lady Winter made it sound, why not simply stop the prophecy from coming true? Why not let some natural force get rid of the threat?
I could not answer any of these questions, and Lady Winter refused to, as well.
When would it all end?
That little brat was getting on my nerves so badly that, more than once, my fingers caressed the trigger of the pistol hanging at my hip. How easy it would be just to strike him in his arm or leg, letting him know that I did not kid when I threatened him, that I really could take him down.
"How could you take me down if you only have one eye?" he jeered as we walked on the canopied street that headed from the square to the High Tower.
"I would rather have one eye than four," I snapped angrily, "Losing an eye sharpened my other senses."
"But not your speed and strength, I'm sure."
"Don't test me, Demetri Klaus," I said menacingly, the way I had learned from Lord Niklaus. "Once my task here is done, and I no longer rely on the hospitality of the king, nothing would stop me from tearing out your gullet and feeding it to the poor children in the lower town."
He snorted with laughter.
I remembered him now. He was the one Lord Niklaus and Lady Victoria had spoken of the day we invaded the village. He had begged her to re-join their ranks and betray us. He was the one who had been buried in the rubble under the High Tower alongside his brother.
I had to say, this village did quite a good job with repairing the damage we caused. One could actually believe that no battle had taken place, was it not for the occasional scratch on a lamp pole, or a scratch on the ground that was obviously that of an Animos knife.
I hung my head dejectedly. I had not even been here a day, and I already wanted to go home.
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