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25 – In Which Vivian Feels the Cold Creep of Winter
The dining hall, like the rest of the Celestial Academy, had exploded into the festivities of Yuletide. Long Night Moon had crept in with a cold chill and bitter breeze. Every season seemed more exaggerated on the Isle of Argos: the rains and fog of autumn had been heavy and dense. Vivian wondered if the winters and summers up here were just as extreme.
Garlands decorated with twinkling stars draped the tables and boughs of holly with bright red berries hung from the glass ceiling that shifted with dark blue clouds.
The dining hall was warm and filled with hearty aromas. The winter harvest had come in. The Isle produced all its own food, with its own farm just beyond Selene Crescent. Starling farmers used their starcraft to grow only the most bountiful crops. Vivian had heard agriculture was one of the specialties they could choose in their fourth year, and many of the students spent time on the farms. Marion and Timothée swore it was the best food they had ever tasted.
But Vivian couldn’t taste anything. Her stomach gnawed at itself, and her fingers shook on the porcelain plate. She was so hungry.
Steaming squash, roasted chestnuts, rosemary potatoes, crisp apple pies, and cookies in the shape of stars lined the buffet table. There were containers of hot tea, coffee, and peppermint hot cocoa.
Vivian shuffled her feet behind her sister and loaded up her dinner plate. She wouldn’t eat any of it, but she had to maintain the illusion.
Marion looked over at her, concern furrowing her brow. “Got everything you want?”
“Yes.” Vivian’s vision darkened around the edges. She felt lightheaded, stumbled.
A crash sounded across the hall as her plate slipped from her fingers and smashed onto the ground. She tried to steady her breath, but the world was spinning. She squeezed her eyes shut, breathed in through her nose, out of her mouth. Get it together. When she opened her eyes, her vision had mostly cleared. Staff were approaching to clean up the mess.
“Are you okay?”
Vivian looked behind her to see a short Evening Star girl, one she knew from her classes, Sapphire Celeste. She remembered one day spent in the Den where Sapphire had told her of Medihsa: the white shores, and turquoise water. The descriptions had been so vivid, she had almost felt the warmth of the sun on her cheeks.
“I just got a little dizzy,” Vivian said.
Sapphire gave a concerned look, running her hands through her long blonde hair. “Why don’t you sit at my table for a moment? It’s right over there.”
“Good idea,” Marion said. “I’ll get you another plate.”
Vivian followed Sapphire over to her table of close-knit friends. Vivian knew most of them from her classes, but she hadn’t spoken to any of them much. Even so, she immediately felt welcomed by the group when she sat down. They were chattering about the upcoming Yuletide Ball.
I’ve barely recovered from the last ball, she thought. And I don’t think I’ll be able to much enjoy this one.
The group had an easy banter, and Vivian saw how bubbly Sapphire was with those close to her. Her smile was bright, and she threw her head back with laugher, tossing her blue bow to the side with the movement. She really was an Evening Star, with her bright blue eyes framed by big glasses.
And again, Vivian felt a stab of longing. She so desperately wanted to belong, but with the ache in her stomach and the weariness in her body, she knew she never could.
“Are you feeling any better?” Sapphire turned to her.
“A little,” Vivian lied.
Sapphire didn’t look like she believed her. She wrinkled her nose. “Well,” she continued, “I usually take really detailed notes in class, so if there’s anything you’re missing, you’re welcomed to copy mine.”
“Oh, thanks,” Vivian said. So even Sapphire had noticed how many classes she had been missing lately. Her professors had as well. But she’d told Setviren she was still recovering from the night after All Hallow’s Eve. She’d used as much of the truth as she was able to: nightmares plagued her, barring her from sleep. She knew he’d shown her leniency that would not normally be extended to another student.
She rubbed her neck. She’d never felt pain like she had when she’d walked into the Archpriestess’s office and saw the vampire brothers.
At least not since that night. The night she was bitten.
There had been memory locked away in that pain. Something about those brothers…
Vivian startled and saw her sister standing above her.
“I got you a new plate,” Marion said.
“Thank you.” Vivian bid goodbye to Sapphire and her friends. She promised Sapphire she’d take her up on copying the notes.
She knew she wouldn’t.
She could barely walk, must less concentrate on learning.
“You have to try to keep up appearances in public,” Marion whispered under her breath. Her voice wasn’t unkind: it was full of concern. And that was almost worse.
“I am trying,” Vivian said.
The two of them walked through the dining hall. It was filled with wood tables: long, circular, square. It wasn’t divided into any sort of house arrangement, though Vivian had noticed that most Starlings did tend to sit with their own.
At the beginning of the year, the triplets had sat with friends they’d met in class. But ever since All Hallow’s Eve, they’d kept to themselves.
Well, at least Vivian and Marion had.
They passed by a group of Dark Stars. Timothée was sitting on a table, his feet on a chair. Beside him, a girl with purple-tipped hair was walking her fingers up his legs and looking up at him with a dreamlike expression.
Marion gave a grunt of indignation. “If someone tells me one more disgusting rumour about my brother, I swear I’ll throw myself off this floating hunk of rock. Why everyone thinks I would be interested in my brother’s vile exploits is beyond me.”
“I agree.” Vivian had heard the rumours too, and Timothée’s firsthand account that they weren’t rumours at all. Timothée had been quite busy making friends around the school the last few weeks.
“At least one of us is having fun,” Marion said as they plopped down at a small table at the back of the dining hall. “I, for one, can barely keep my eyes open after classes.”
“I don’t think he’s having fun.” Vivian watched Timothée, his gaze frantically searching the dining hall. He didn’t even appear to notice the girl below him or the Dark Stars at his table. “I think he’s trying to hurt someone as much as he’s hurting.”
“Valentine?” Marion snarled. “You’d think at least one of these people he’s throwing himself at would get his mind off that little freak.”
Vivian looked around the dining hall but didn’t see the lilac-eyed Dark Star boy. Vivian turned back to her plate. Their table was by a window, and her steaming food fogged the glass. She looked out at the frost-covered ground, the barren starlit trees.
Starlings loved the winter. More night.
They ate their food in silence, and Vivian saw how ravenous her sister was. Marion had meant it when she said she’d fallen asleep after classes every day. Although her sister had admitted to a rather scandalous encounter with Khalid in the Glass Cathedral a couple of weeks ago, Marion hadn’t been able to see much of Khalid since.
Expect when the four of them were planning.
It had always been just her, Marion, and Timothée. Now Khalid Ali Bagheeri was in the mix, keeper of all their secrets.
But Marion trusted him. And she didn’t trust anyone.
Drink my blood. That’s what Khalid had told her. Vivian wished she didn’t think about his words so often, the desperate look on his face.
Vivian pushed her plate over to her sister when Marion finished. Marion looked down at it sadly. “Only a few more weeks, then it’s the ball.”
The Yuletide Ball. A night of delight and wonder. And a night the whole school would be distracted, including Archpriestess Kassandra. They had concluded it was the perfect time to attempt opening the locked door and speaking with the castle only Timothée could hear.
“Do you think you’ll be ready?” Vivian asked.
“I will be.” Marion’s voice was so sure, but Vivian knew it was only because she had to be.
Marion was working herself to the bone. Every day after her regular lessons, she attended her private sessions with Archpriestess Kassandra. Marion was getting stronger; there was a fiery glint in her eyes, and she exuded a sort of self-assurance she’d lacked in Wolfhelm.
It’s for me. If Marion hadn’t wanted behind that door so much, then would she have agreed to the lessons? Would she have been able to refuse?
They hadn’t spoken it aloud, but all of them knew. If this didn’t work…
Then the monster lives, and the girl dies.
When she’d first become sick, it had hardly been noticeable. Those bones, those wings, had only tried to claw through her back after the first year. Then it had been every few months. When they first came to the Academy, it was once a week.
But now… every moment she felt her body try to crumble into itself, losing the disguise of human and becoming what she truly was. Every time she looked in the mirror, she wasn’t sure who she would see staring back.
Delighted gasps filled the air, and students rushed to the windows. Tiny white flakes hit the top of the glass ceiling, flurrying outside.
The first snow of winter.
And then her heart stopped, no, started. Through the crowd, she saw two figures enter the room: Khalid and…
“He’s back.” Her voice was featherlight.
The Dark Prophet and his followers had raided a military base in northern Andúrigard and stolen weapons. Darius had been summoned down to Wolfhelm to help deal with the ramifications. She’d heard the rumours: hundreds of vampires, and a massive flying bat…
The Dark Prophet may have saved them from the mercenaries, but he wasn’t on their side. Wasn’t on the Celestial Church and Kingdom’s side.
Vivian knew she should look away but could not bear it. He looked as tired and worn as she was, dark circles under his eyes. His hair which was usually so pristine was slightly mussed. Before he had left, they mostly managed to avoid each other. Whereas she had been missing classes, she knew Darius was throwing himself into his schooling, spending any extra time learning from the professors, perfecting his combat. He barely spent any time in the Den, and the only person she ever saw him was with Khalid.
His blue gaze swept to her, and she looked down, fingernails digging into her palms.
In the dining hall of hundreds of Starlings, his was the only heart she heard beat.
✨Thank you for reading this chapter! Sapphire is a special guest-star original character from one of our first-month Patrons! ✨
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