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28 – In Which Vivian Tastes the Forbidden Fruit
The halls were quiet, her siblings were quiet, and the snow outside the arched windows fell in a silent storm. But inside, Vivian’s mind raged.
Thoughts and visions whirled around, a calamity of fear and desperation. That being…that celestial cloud that lived inside the castle, it had given her hope and ripped it away in the span of minutes.
What good was an impossible cure? They would never be able to steal Archpriestess Kassandra’s staff, let alone find some fabled weapon capable of breaking it.
She would lose herself to the monster clawing at her from the inside out before they even got a single finger on that damned god-made staff.
Tears threatened to cloud her vision, but she angrily blinked them away. She followed behind her siblings and Khalid as they snuck through the dark hallways of the Academy. There was no one in sight; everyone must still be enjoying the party. After the celestial being had told them its conditions, they had left shortly after. What else was there to hear?
The being could save her if they freed it. But they needed time.
And the only thing that would buy her that was feasting on a mortal’s blood.
She dug her nails into the palms of her hands. It was the one thing she couldn’t do. Even if such an act wouldn’t kill a person, what would become of her humanity?
What would become of Vivian Greywick, the girl who loved to paint, who used to dance between lavender flowers with her brother and sister and no worries at all? The girl who dreamt of love and princes when they were nothing but a fairytale?
There was still a piece of her left, one that kept pushing those horrid bone spurs back between her shoulder blades. She wouldn’t lose that piece.
“In here.” Timothée motioned for them to follow him down a dark alcove. A portrait of her brother—her older brother, said to be a monster of a different ilk—stared at her with frightening familiarity.
The Greywicks and Khalid gathered in a circle.
Vivian knew them too well—her siblings, that was. It was the benefit of being the quiet one. While Marion and Timothée would talk and act and do, she would watch. It was how she always knew when Marion’s teasing went a little too far as to hurt Timothée’s feelings. Or how much grief Marion truly was in the three years after Father died.
Now, she read every thought just by the tremble in Timothée’s hand, the gleam in Marion’s eyes. Timothée was optimistic, holding onto that thread of hope like a puppy with a stick. He bit his lip, holding back what she knew was a flood of ideas on how they could get the staff.
And Marion…pure, unadulterated fury blazed in her gaze. A gaze directed straight at Khalid.
Ah. So, he was a good secret-keeper. He never told Marion that he had offered his own blood.
“Alright,” Timothée said, unable to contain himself anymore. “Time to make a plan. Khalid, you said you’d heard of a sword. I think I know what you’re talking about. I…I saw it. The castle showed me…an image of it. It must exist. You and I can find out more information, and Marion can—”
“You lied to me,” Marion snarled.
Khalid looked around, as if she was talking to someone else. “Me?”
Marion looked like a cat, lip pulled back over what should be fangs. “Don’t play dumb with me. You’re a liar, Khalid.”
“I never lied to you! I never lied to you.” Khalid held his arms wide. “Did you ever ask me if I offered up my blood to your vampiric sister? Did you? No!”
She stabbed his chest with her finger. “You told me to trust you!” Tears welled in Marion’s eyes. “It’s my fault that I did.”
Vivian’s head felt full, fuzzy. She drifted away from the circle and over to the portrait of Noctis. She couldn’t listen to Marion fight with Khalid. Instead, she let her mind float further away, distancing herself from the conflict.
This was her fault, after all. Khalid had been trying to help her. Just as her siblings had years ago, when Marion bled Timothée’s wrist over a bowl. Something about her siblings’ blood made her sick. Animal blood did little to satiate her hunger. Marion had figured out the leech shoppe after that.
Khalid may have been trying to help, but he didn’t understand. Not like Marion.
Blood may make her better.
But blood would never make her whole.
Voices, voices, voices: Marion and Khalid snapping back and forth, Timothée urging them to stop.
Vivian focused on Noctis’s painted face. Reached up and stroked his black hair, his pale cheeks. Were you always a monster, brother? Or did the world turn you into one?
Everyone said he looked so much like Timothée. But she could see herself in this painting too: the sharp cheekbones, the wave of his hair.
Vivian turned and stared at Marion. Tears fell down her sister’s face. Khalid had his hands dug in his hair, urgently pleading his case.
Her sister disliked everyone and everything on sight. But not him. Marion lit up when Khalid was around: laughed louder, dreamt bigger.
And Vivian was driving them apart.
Maybe Noctis hadn’t wanted to be a monster, but he’d turned into one anyway. And he’d decided to take the whole world with him.
She couldn’t do that. Couldn’t let one more person be hurt because of her.
“Marion!” Khalid’s voice broke in a way Vivian had never heard before. “What are you saying?”
“You deliberately kept your plan from me.” Marion’s firebird dress flickered in the torchlight. “I’m saying I was a fool to believe in you. A fool to—”
“Enough.” Vivian walked between them. “If you’re angry with anyone, sister, be angry with me. I kept this from you, too. But I’m too tired for fighting.” She looked at Timothée. “Or plotting. Let me rest and think on all we have seen tonight.” She turned once more to Marion. “Please, go easy on Khalid. He was trying to help.”
Marion wiped her running nose, looked down. Khalid gave what could only be a grateful smile.
Vivian turned and started down the hallway. Her little brother loped at her heels. “I’ll walk you to the Den.”
“That’s perfectly alright, Timothée. I want to be alone.” She stopped and sighed when a look of hurt flashed across his face. She pressed a cold hand to his cheek and said in a softer tone, “Thank you, Tim. Truly. You’ve risked so much to help me.”
He held her hand against his face. “Of course, Viv. And I won’t stop. Not for anything.”
That’s what I’m afraid of.
What would become of the Dark Star who stole the Archpriestess’s staff?
Vivian left her brother and disappeared into the dark hallways.
That was the thing about being a monster. She was used to lurking in the shadows.
Vivian wandered toward the Yuletide party. She didn’t want to go back to the Den quite yet, wasn’t ready to face the quiet of her bedroom. Instead of taking the inside halls, she walked outside, feet dragging in the snow, so as not to draw notice from any of her peers. She wanted to hear music, see people dancing, feel the twinkling lights on her skin. Pretend she was a part of it.
One last time.
Tomorrow, she would request a ground pass. And she wouldn’t come back.
Father had hidden from the Celestial Church for years. She could do it too. Not that she had years left, before she was no better than the creatures wrapped in their own wings in the alleys of Wolfhelm.
Maybe she’d find a new path. A voice drifted into her mind: You don’t have to live like this. I know what it’s like. The pain. The hunger. Come with us. I’ll help you.
The vampire named Allistar had said those words to her. Maybe she’d find him and discover just what he meant.
Regardless of her future, Vivian Greywick knew what she needed to do. If she didn’t do this thing, people would keep getting hurt. People like her Father. People like Marion and Timothée. People like Khalid. People like—
She stumbled to a stop, because there he was, bathed in the orange light spilling out from the ballroom. He stood on the edge of the balcony that led down to the Tealight Gardens, face tilted up to the sky, snowflakes frosting his golden hair.
Darius wore a fitted blue tunic with silver star edges, a heavy navy cloak, and tall black boots. She could have been staring at a portrait: the beautiful prince, a Starling, regal in everything he did.
He belonged here.
He belongs with me. She closed her eyes, shutting out the thought.
She knew leaving him was far worse than losing her status as a Starling, her place at the Celestial Academy.
She would see Marion and Timothée again, of that she was certain. Even if a cure was never found, she would see her siblings again. But Darius…if she truly had to survive as a vampire, that was something she could never tie him to.
Warmth flowed through her, and she looked up to find his gaze settled on her. “Vivian,” he said, then straightened. “I thought you turned in.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “I needed some air.”
He glanced back through the window at the Yuletide ball, then slowly, cautiously, descended the steps. “Did you enjoy the party?”
“Indeed.” She wasn’t sure what to say, but she didn’t want to leave. She wanted to look at him, commit as many details of his face as she could to memory. His smile…she wished she could see his smile one last time. But he wasn’t smiling now. “Though I didn’t seem to find time for a dance.”
“Neither did I.” He stopped before her, loose strands of gold falling across his face.
She remembered the first day they meet, dancing around her little candle shoppe. How she pressed up against him as he held her. It was the first time in three years she had felt like a girl and not a monster.
She held onto her elbows. “I should head back.”
“Would you like me to escort you to the Den?”
She smiled softly. He was ever the gentleman. “I’ll be alright but thank you.”
“Have a lovely night, Vivian, and a most joyous Yuletide.” His gaze lingered on her before he turned to leave.
She noticed a tiny bit of blue fabric peeking out from underneath his sleeve. She clasped his wrist. He stilled and she felt the shock roll through him. He slowly turned to her.
“You still have this.” She ran a thumb over the blue fabric ribbon tied around his wrist.
“Of course I do.” His voice was calm, but she heard the uptick of his heartbeat in her ears.
Delicately, she moved her fingers down and brushed the fabric. The edges loosened, the ribbon ends fluttering out to catch in the breeze.
“Perhaps you could use it.” Gently, he pushed the stray hairs away from her face. The feel of his skin over hers was electric. “Turn around.”
She did so, and he gathered her hair, rough fingers brushing the exposed skin on her shoulders. He tied her hair back and stepped away. She lightly touched the bow at the nape of her neck.
He’s giving it back? Her chest shuddered. He’s ready to let go of me.
She knew this was for the best, but it didn’t stop her heart from bleeding. She turned with a smile. “How did you learn to tie such a perfect bow, Prince Störmberg?”
“Celeste recruited me to tie many a bow on her stuffed animals and in her hair.” And then there it was: a genuine smile.
She’d missed that, missed him. She let her hand drop from the bow. “I suppose I should let you get back to the ball.”
“Yes, I…” He shook his head. “Though, I would be remiss to leave without telling you how startlingly beautiful you look tonight. Please st