AS THE car pulled away from the streets of Coral City, Vivienne breathed a sigh of relief. Soon, they were surrounded by a brief interlude of valleys and streams before they came to the town of Cosel where they were to find their new home. Whereas Vivienne had viewed the trip with guarded optimism earlier that morning, she was suddenly overcome by forebode. The entrance of the town was marked by two monstrous coils of iron. They looked like roller coaster tracks that had been ripped out of the depths of hell. The skyscraper-high loops of iron were covered in rust, and the grassy field beneath them still showed scars of the tracks where they had once run.
“What in the world are those?” Sallen asked their driver. Their vermin-like chauffeur responded by noisily scratching his head in contemplation. Then with one greasy finger, he punched the start button on his dashboard music player. An overly saccharine voice blared from the speakers. Apparently, this wasn’t the first time he drove clueless visitors in from the outside.
“Greetings visitors of the township of Cossel!” the speaker exclaimed on the prerecorded track. “Now you are crossing the border between Coral City and Cossel! The town of Cosel is known as the Caged City because it is surrounded on all sides by what was once a continental railroad. During the last Great War Ignians made their last stand along the coast of the Anthias sea and in Cossel. After the tunnels were flooded, the Ignians tried to melt down the railroads to make bullets.”
“And apparently to make a playground for giants,” Vivianne muttered sarcastically.
“When the Orlins of the glorious city realized what the putrid masses were doing, they wisely sent their knightly Anemois to rip the tracks out from the ground as a demonstration of power. When the Ignians woke in the morning and found their town surrounded by these fearsome works they realized no human weapons could match the powers of the Orlins. And so they surrendered.”
“The Orlins did this?” Sallen asked, her voice barely above a whisper. Before they could steal another glance at the monuments, the limo sped past and into the township they went. What Vivienne saw, compounded her dread. There was row after row of shabby, broken houses with boarded up windows. Barefooted children ran across the street chasing after alleycats. There were a group of skeletal men huddled about a pit in the ground where they were burning newspapers and cooking a stew. They lounged about on mattresses were strewn across the ruins of a house where only the foundation remained.
The cheerful voice in the recording continued. “Today, Cosel serves as a safe-haven for refugees from Ignias. They are here searching for a better life across the Anthias sea, for themselves and their descendants. Cosel is a great beacon of the open nature of Coral City.”
“How generous of them,” Vivienne muttered. In the distance, she saw a multitude of smokestacks releasing thick greenish smoke into the sky. Even from where she sat inside the air-conditioned limo, the air smelled filthy to her. She could only imagine what it was like to work there. Across the run down archway that marked the center of the town square someone had spray painted “This is Coral City. This is the good life.”
Vivienne glanced across the backseat of the limo to find Sallen covering her nose with one hand, her large eyes wide in terror. “Sort of wish you had listened to me and stayed home, huh?” Vivienne joked.
“Maybe the Henton’s area is better,” Sallen replied. “They’re nobleman after all.”
The limo made a circle around the archway and proceeded uptown. They turned around the corner from an ice cream parlor selling pig fat flavored icicles promising in a blinking sign that it tasted authentic. The Henton House came into sight. Vivienne was amazed there wasn’t a fence around the complex, just a chair at the street entrance saying “Security On Duty.” There was no security guard as far as Vivienne could see, just an empty soda cup with a box of cigarettes smashed inside.
“Now you are entering the gates that mark the beginning of the Henton Estate,” the recording stated with a genteel that didn’t match the surrounding at all. “The Henton Family was sent to live in Cosel after the Great War in order to aid in the rebuilding of the township. Today, they are still working to better the lives of those that live in the great Caged City.”
“Sounds more like they’re like jail wardens, making sure that these people don’t get into Coral City proper,” Vivienne remarked.
Their driver snorted in reply. Within minutes they pulled up to the front door of the Henton House. Vivienne decided it was a “house” instead of a manor because it was simply a large building standing beside the street. There was what once could have been a sprawling lawn, but it was covered in tents with derelicts living inside. Vivienne wondered if she should introduce herself to their new neighbors or if she should clutch her bags and hope no one tries to fight her for her pocket change. As Vivienne stepped out of the car, she tried not to meet the hungry eyes of a man sitting cross-legged on the curb holding out a cup for coins. Before she could fully take in her surroundings, she heard a familiar voice.
“Vivienne! You look so pretty,” Calbert’s large frame filled her field of vision. He looked even larger and more oafish in the sunlight. Vivienne hanged him her bag, hoping that it would give him something to do so that she had a moment to collect herself. But, instead, he ignored her and ran off. Within seconds Calbert returned pushing a boy in a wheelchair. The boy was deathly pale with hollow cheeks. His legs were as thin as toothpicks. Sitting there- with a giant pushing him along - the sight was almost comical.
“Jaker,” Sallen said in recognition. As mature as could be, Sallen approached the disabled boy and planted a kiss on his shrunken cheek. The boy smiled weakly in gratitude. He patted Sallen’s arm with one skinny hand.
“I saved you cookies, Vivianne,” Calbert proclaimed gleefully and handed her a stack of pastries inside a folded napkin. “I ate one because I was waiting so long. I hope you don’t mind.”
Vivienne nodded absently and shoved them in her purse. She didn’t have the heart to tell him she had long since lost her appetite at the sight of his illustrious home. Sallen took the handles of Jaker’s wheelchair and began pushing him along the path into the house. Calbert took the luggage bags and began herding her up the walkway as well.
“You and your cousin, you guys don’t look much alike,” Vivienne finally managed to utter. She decided the longer she made small talk, the less likely Calbert was expecting a kiss on the cheek as well.
“We used to look more alike,” Calbert told her sadly. “Jaker didn’t react well to the Nectar. It doesn’t make everyone stronger. The effect is different on everyone. Sometimes it can cripple you.” Calbert ran up the stairs with the bags while Sallen and Jaker went around the long way up the ramp. “Jaker used to be a healthy running kid too. The Nectar didn’t have much effect on me. My mom says nothing can penetrate my thick skull.”
Or it can cure you, Vivienne thought to herself. Blake, one crippled boy who was cured by Nectar and Jaker, a healthy child who was destroyed by it. It was a deadly game of chance to take part in “the good life.” Sometimes, it seemed to her that with all its trappings and its pitfalls, it should be renamed the “forbidden life” instead.
“We listened to the tape on the way over,” Vivienne said, trying to make conversation as she followed Calbert inside the dilapidated house. “Do the Orlins in Pearl Tower really have the ability to rip metal railroad tracks out of the earth? I’ve never seen anything like that.”
“No,” Calbert said carefully as he tried to hold her hand. His collar looked too tight again, and he was uttering his words breathlessly. “That’s what they tell the people of the city. Actually, the Orlins had nothing to do with that. There is a secret society under it all; my father works for one of them - his name is Ozias Janvier. His bloodline has the power to control metal. Who do you think supplies Pearl Tower with those enchanted silver chains? But the rumor is, his family power is dying out. When it does, Pearl Tower will go with it.” Calbert led Vivienne to a stairwell that was missing its banister. He helped her with her bag up the stairs. “You know that you’re supposed to hand over the gold chain after the bond is made right?”
“Oh,” Vivienne said as she fingered the gold bracelet on her wrist. “Why?”
“It’s just a formality,” Calbert said. “They’ll make fun of me if you don’t.” As Calbert reached out for it, Vivienne took a step back and shook her head. Something, about the way his eyes flickered with eerie light as he made that request made her hesitate. They say that a vampire can’t enter one’s house unless invited. Vivienne doubted that legend was true, but she had a feeling right then that giving him the gold chain would have the same effect. She was inviting him into her body and mind.
As Vivienne reached into her pocket and wrapped her fingers around the cameo, she noted that Blake never asked her to give him the necklace. She always had it on her for as long as she could remember. It must not be that important of a formality.
“Can I think on it?” Vivienne asked Calbert. “You see, this is my only piece of nice jewelry right now. Just a little longer, please?”
Calbert laughed. “We’ll get you something nicer, I promise, little dudette. Don’t tell anyone what I told you about the railroad tracks okay? It’s a secret. Just talking about it can get my family into trouble.”
“Okay,” Vivienne said. “Thanks for trusting me.”
“I can tell you more, but you need to hand over the chain first,” Calbert said. “If I trust you, you need to trust me too.”