"Congratulations, my lady," he said, holding up his hands in surrender, but his eyes were shooting daggers. I pulled Tio's blade out of his stomach - he grunted and spat blood - and held my hand out. He took it and I helped him up. The people on the stands were going insane with cheering, and I felt the weight pressing on my eardrums.
Niklaus approached us and took my hand, holding it up in the air in victory.
Afterwards, he led everyone to the main hall, where there were tables upon tables everywhere. The walls were lined with tables with all manner of delicious foods: roast pork, beef and lamp, steaks, ribs, meatballs, pastries, roast potato, salads, turkey, sandwiches and quiches were just a few of the choices.
The moment my eyes rested on the food, I left Niklaus's side and headed there, stacking my plate with anything I could lay my eyes on.
The evening passed quite pleasantly. For one thing, Niklaus stayed away from me, so I was free to eat whatever I wanted and as much as I wanted, without being forced to dance. Sebastian's face was expressionless throughout the entire endeavour, which was a surprise on its own: usually that annoying smirk was plastered on his face. A closer inspection, however, revealed the same dead look in his eyes I had seen in the mirror every day since I drank Niklaus’s blood.
After about two hours of nibbling on just about everything the kitchen had to offer, I decided I might as well get the ordeal over with.
I sighed and walked over to where he was standing in the corner. His face hardened ever so slightly, but otherwise he took no notice of my presence.
"Listen," I said, "I know I had no right to peek around in your mind, but I needed to. I needed to win."
"I know, my lady."
"I'm sorry," I pressed, wanting for him to at least acknowledge that I really did feel bad.
"There is no need to apologise, my lady. I am but a humble butler. If you would excuse me..."
I hung my head and left the room. Why could no one ever understand that I only kill people to become stronger, or I only invade minds to prove myself to receive training to become even stronger? I did not do this out of pleasure: I did it because Father had to pay for what he did. He was a stain on the earth, one that needed to be removed.
The following morning, Claude woke me as he always did, with a kiss to the forehead. This was the first time he had done so since I had gotten my emotions back. I had always disregarded the gesture, but now, I felt warmth spreading through the spot his lips had touched.
"I have prepared breakfast, my lady," he said, handing me a tray with vanilla-flavoured cereal in one bowl, a small milk jug, a saucer with toast, and another saucer with two eggs and two rashers of bacon. "Also, Lord Niklaus said that you may go to his room on Monday to start your training."
"Thanks," I said, stretching and then sitting up, "Is Sebastian still mad at me?"
"We are forbidden to show emotion of any kind, my lady."
"You didn't answer my question," I pressed, pouring the milk over the cereal before taking a bite.
He remained silent for several long moments before speaking, "Our childhood was a harsh one, my lady. Sebastian blames most of what happened to us on himself, although I am forbidden to ask why, after all these years, he still does so ... instead of learning to come to terms with the human life we had, like I have, he decided to push it to the back of his mind. Lord Niklaus found him crying last night, and now he is being tortured."
I choked and covered a hand over my mouth, "What?!"
"It was our choice to-"
"I don't give a damn!" I growled, outraged.
Claude, flabbergasted, watched as I gobbled down my breakfast, got dressed right in front of him and ran from the room with bare feet to Niklaus's door before knocking several times. He opened the door.
"Good morning, my-"
"Let Sebastian out of the torture chamber," I interrupted, storming into his room, glaring at him.
"It's my fault he's hurting now, and it's my fault that I let loose memories that should have been dealt with centuries ago!" I said, "Please, just let him go."
"No," he said simply.
I started trembling with rage, "No?"
"That is right: no," he repeated, "Those two brothers made a deal with me nearly four centuries ago: they would reject their emotions and serve me until such time as I release them, or death takes them. Over the years, I have offered to let them go several times out of self-pity, but they never left."
"Because they don't have anywhere else to go!"
"And what is this newfound love for the butlers, my lady?" he asks, a challenging glint in his eyes. I flushed and rolled my eyes.
"I know what it's like to be stuck with parents who treat you like scum, and it's my fault that those memories have resurfaced again. This past week, I've been trying to turn my reputation around, and I can't keep it that way if I'm the cause for your butler to be tortured. I already humiliated him in front of the entire mansion's staff. What more could you want?"
"Listen to me, Victoria," he said, a menacing sting suddenly flowing about in the air, "You have no jurisdiction here. You are below me, like everyone else in this mansion. You will be indebted to me until the day you are able to kill me, simply for letting you live after the ritual failed a year ago. Never, ever make the mistake of trying to order me around again. Do you understand?"
By the end of his speech, I was standing against the wall, cowering under his glowing red glare.
"Yes," I croaked, and the atmosphere turned back to normal, "In that case, I am appealing to you as your ward: I will do almost anything if you allow me to go talk to him, if you allow me to try and help him deal with his pain. I'll let you show me off as a cheap souvenir, and let you introduce me as your wife or whatever. If you want, I'll even make Lunarian provide the funds to help you revive your real wife. Just, please, let me do this."
"Will you give up your water manipulation skills and transfer them to me?" he asked, that challenging glint in his eyes again.
My heart skipped a furious beat. "No."
"Will you give up your ambition to kill your father and instead become my personal vampire guard?"
I started trembling. "No."
"Will you let me remove your life essence and place it in Victoria Narlith's body?"
Tears started glistening in my eyes. "No."
"Well, then, you have nothing of use for me!" he said, "What use have I for a washed-up prodigy with a meaningless ambition who would not have looked at me twice, had it not been for the power I wield? What use have I for a girl so caught up in her feelings that she barely has time to train anymore? Do you not understand, my lady, that there is nothing you can offer me that will gain you the advantage over me?"
Tears rolled down my eyes. I could not - would not - allow Sebastian to be tortured on my account. And if I saved him now, he would be indebted to me, and I would be able to call on his aid should the need ever arise. I did not know what sparked this unusual behaviour in Niklaus, and I was scared to find out, so I made a decision.
"I will love you instead of Lunarian," I said, my voice hitching over his name. Niklaus froze where he stood with that manic smile on his face. "I will stop talking about him and spend every waking minute tending to your needs, other than the times when you train me."
Suddenly there were arms wrapped around me, and I knew that he would accept this offer, so I forced myself to hug him back.
"I apologise for my behaviour," he said, surprising me. "The Shadows are planning an attack on me, and I am in desperate need of strong warriors."
He let me go and looked into my eyes. As I watched, his expression softened and he wiped the tears from my face.
"I know that you are going through a very rough phase in your life, which is why I have a counter-proposal," he said. I continued staring at him. "You will be my warrior until such time as you either no longer want revenge on Mordax, or you have already taken it. You will go to every battle I request of you, and continue to run errands for me when you have the time."
"And what's in it for me?" I asked before I could stop myself.
"In return, I will allow you one day in which you can try to help Sebastian, and I will grant you one last visit to our king for the duration of one hour. He will need it. He has been so fixated on you, his kingdom has fallen to ruin. Sebastian will be released. When you return after that one hour, you will have only today to try and redeem him. After that, things will return to the way they were. Does that seem fair to you?"
I could not help the grin spreading on my face. I nodded vigorously and, before I knew it, I had my arms wrapped around his waist in a tight embrace.
He kissed me on the head before letting me go. "I am going to use a technique to transport you to the king's office. In exactly one hour, you will be returned here."
"Ok," I said, wiping the remaining tears from my eyes and feebly attempting to comb my hair with my fingers. In those moments, despite the way he had treated me just moments before, I felt my respect for him skyrocket again. But then I remembered something. “Wait, can I please just go get something from my room?”
“Hurry. I might change my mind,” he said with a soft smile.
I felt my heart race, and focused Ceilos forcefully into my legs, rocketing to my room and to the shelf where I had stacked away my family’s heirlooms. I enveloped the Spirit Blades I knew had to belong to Tobias in water and compacted it so that it formed ice before running back to Niklaus.
“I’m ready,” I told him.
He smiled before forming a whole range of seals with his hands. Finally, his hands came to a stop in a praying gesture, and then he held them outwards toward me. A ball of light escaped from the palms of his hands and grew bigger and bigger until it enveloped me. Suddenly, I felt as though I was flying through the air at the same speed the Gabriel had flown with me the very first time I Summoned him.
And then the light was gone. I was standing in Lunarian's office. He had been asleep on his desk, but flew upwards when my feet landed on the floor. When his eyes focused on me, I felt myself freeze. My limbs simply refused to move.
"V-Victoria?" he breathed.
"Hey, baldy," I said. I did not know what to say. It had been so long since we had an actual chance to talk, and the last time was when I nearly stabbed him to death. I decided to start with the most important. "I - uhm - I got my emotions back."
"I know. Klaus came by here about a week ago to tell me that Sapphire died saving you. That was very noble of her," he said, circling his desk until he was but two feet from me.
My heart was hammering in my chest. I wanted nothing more than to wrap my arms around his neck and kiss him into oblivion, but that was too cheesy for me, and it made me blush.
"So, what are you doing here?" he asked, "Where are your shoes?"
"Oh, I just got up," I said, embarrassed. "I was a little upset with Niklaus over something with the butlers. We made a deal so that I could come see you."
"What does he want?"
"He only wants me to continue fighting for him until I get my revenge. He promised to train me himself, so that shouldn't be long," I replied, "And then - uhm - then I can come home."
"That's good news, then," he said.
"I only have an hour, so..." I said, wondering what I should do next.
Oh, what the hell? I thought to myself.
I walked the distance that separated us and threw my hands around his neck, pressing my lips to his like I had never done before. I felt his hands snake around my waist, and I curled my fingers into his hair. I had not felt that soft texture in so many months. I kissed his jaw and then his neck and then simply held on to him as he swung me around in the air in a circular motion before finally holding my legs and setting me down on his desk.
This was a sort of intimacy I was not used to and extremely uncomfortable with, but I allowed him to stand between my legs because I knew it would not be long until I was returned to the mansion.
I took a strand of his hair and held it down against his royal robes, gaping when I saw that it nearly reached his hips now.
"Your hair is still longer than mine," I said.
"Yeah, I figured that if you saw that, you wouldn't call me 'baldy' anymore."
"You know you like it," I said with a playful wink.
He caressed my hair behind my ear, "You know, I haven't seen you this happy in years."
"Yeah, I've been dealing with my wrongdoings," I said, playing with a strand of his hair while avoiding his gaze, "I've been apologising to the servants and I've tried to make things right, you know, with all the people I hurt. I mean, all of them have worked so hard for me and I kinda threw it in their faces this whole time."
"I'm glad that you're setting things right," he said, his face becoming playfully stern, "You know, I still have scars where you stabbed me."
"I'll make up for that when all this is over," I said, "And in my defence, you toyed with me, even if it was under Lady Winter's orders."
"Fair point," he said, kissing my nose, "I promise I will never lie to you again."
"And I promise that I'll never stab you again," I said with a grin. “Unless you piss me off.”
"Deal," he said, and his eyes came to rest on the shard of ice that clamped the daggers together. “What’s this?”
“Oh, could you give this to Tobias?” I asked. “It’s something especially for him.”
He kissed me once, twice, thrice before letting me go. He wrapped a cloak around my shoulders and threw me on his back before leaving the office.
"What are you doing?" I asked, laughing.
"You still have enough time left to say hello to all the others. It's amazing what Demetri's been able to do with the Village. He and all your old friends meet before school every morning, so you can give that to Tobias yourself ..."
Suddenly, we were flying through the air with a speed I had never known Lunarian could run at. I had never seriously considered exactly how strong he was, and I found myself wondering whether I would be able to beat him in a fair fight.
Not ten minutes later, we were just outside the Academy I used to go to just before I left. Nothing had changed. Even as we walked through the hallways, I saw that not even the interior had changed. My heart started hammering as we approached the entrance to the main hall, and familiar voices rang through my ears. Lunarian swung the doors open with one hand, and then there was silence.
For several seconds, all the people that used to be my friends stared at me: Tobias, Lionel, Rohan, Rufus, Demetri, Ylnor and Noram were clustered in a group along with a few people I recognised only by sight.
And then, suddenly, they all rose from their seats to approach me, but they kept their distance.
"Hey, guys," I said, kicking Lunarian in the side to make him set me down. He did so with a bit of reluctance. "Long time, no see."
"You bet it's been a long time," Noram said, "The last time we saw you was not very pleasant ..."
"I didn't have emotions then!" I whined, and they stared.
"Guys, let me introduce the real Victoria Black: energetic as you could ever imagine and quite a pleasant person," Lunarian said with a grin.
"Then who've we known for the past three years?" Ylnor said with a grin.
"That's rude," I said.
"You earned it," he said.
"Oh, yeah, sorry about your spine," I said, remembering when Niklaus had disabled him for several months. "Has it healed yet?"
"Yeah, I've been up and running along with the entire village."
"So, what's been happening?" Tobias asked, "What are you doing here, exactly?"
"Niklaus is about to start training me," I said, and I could see their faces fall, "He allowed me to come see you guys for a while."
I felt Lunarian's hands snake around my waist from behind, and slapped them away, but he refused to budge. Rufus said with a grin, "His majesty hasn't given up hope on you a single minute since you left."
"I know, and I'm really sorry about all the crap I put all of you through," I said, "I've been trying to make it right, which is actually exactly why I'm here. I've put scars on all of you, both mentally and physically. I just have one more thing I need to do, and then I'll make it up to all of you. You just need to give me some time."
"How long?" Tobias asked, "The village just isn't the same without you ..."
"A year, give or take a few weeks," I said seriously, hoping it would be so little. "But look on the bright side, Niklaus is on the Village's side now. He's doing all he can to take care of the Shadows."
"They've been such a pain," Demetri said, wolf-whistling.
“I know,” I said. “Tobias, I have something for you.” I took the shard of ice from inside the cloak and handed it to him. Before he could say anything, I added. “I can’t touch this, so I covered it with ice.”
He took the ice, and I melted it. The water washed away to reveal the two beautiful daggers. Blue light enveloped them along with his hands, and he performed complicated little movements with them.
“Where did you get these?” he asked disbelievingly. “They’re so light.”
“I think they’re Spirit Blades, for you. I found them in my family’s things.”
“So cool,” Lionel said, grinning at the blades.
"Ok, but I'm going to steal Victoria away from you all again, because she only has about seven minutes left, so say your goodbyes now," Lunarian said impatiently. I stared at him with a raised eyebrow, and he grinned.
I knew I would be a little uncomfortable to the touch, considering the person I had been for the last few years, but I hugged each of them in turn, saving Tobias for last. I hovered for a moment, briefly remembering the strength our friendship used to have, and hoping that I would be able to fix the state it was in now. And then I let go, following Lunarian outside.
"Seven minutes, huh?" I said with a snort of laughter.
"Ok, twenty-seven. All the more time for me," he said, kissing me again.
We spent the last half hour together in each other's arms, enjoying each other's warmth, and savouring the comfortable silence of each other's company. Occasionally, Lunarian would kiss me on my head.
Finally, I opened my eyes to see a great ball of light approaching me. I kissed Lunarian one last time, and walked into it, another Spiritforsaken tear rolling down my cheek as he disappeared from view.
"This extract remains the exclusive property of the author who retains all copyright and other intellectual property rights in the work. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced or used by any person or entity for any purpose without the author's express permission and authority."