THE ENTRANCE of the Tower was composed entirely of marble. They were herded out of the grand foyer, around a narrow hallway separated from an indoor courtyard and into a meeting hall. There were five more inductees already there, making the total nine. Each of the other five inductees was more beautiful than the last. It made Vivienne wonder why she was picked at all. Sallen must have been thinking the same thing because she pulled the hood of her cloak lower over her face.
Ten inductees are picked every year to join the ranks of the Orlins. This year, there were only nine. Normally, they would wait until the last one was chosen before holding the Midnight Masquerade, but this year they decided to continue anyway. This was an unheard of number as normally they were lucky to have one. A prince who was up for an Orlin could not be made to wait. Almost twenty lords were participating in the Midnight Masquerade as well, but some of them participated every year and never found an Orlin to suit their fickle tastes.
Madame Jyger gave a lecture on the origins of the Orlins. A couple of hundreds of years ago, the inventors in Coral City discovered a potion called the Nectar. Nectar could cure all diseases. Not only was it useful in aiding the sick, but it also made the drinker smarter, younger, faster. Over time, however, they discovered that Nectar was not the key to immortality. It eventually drove the drinker insane, sometimes even to crave human flesh.
That was when it was discovered that by binding themselves to a human who was not tainted by Nectar, the elite could keep their sanity. That’s where the Order of the Orlins came in. Unfortunately, not all bonds were created equal. Some Orlins and Anemois simply fit together better, like soulmates. Although there were a few same-gender bonds, the majority of them were between opposite genders.
Vivienne felt increasingly disgusted at the idea of being an Orlin. The people outside of Coral City never questioned why they were being chosen to accompany the elite society members like beloved house pets. They were too bedazzled by the promise of riches and fame to ask why. A question that bugged Vivienne that no one bothered to address was what happened to the Orlins who were bound to the Nectar-drinking elite. If they lived forever than would they require a new Orlin so frequently? If they were capable of living forever than why is it that the papers never picked up on it? It seemed to Vivienne that the elite was disappearing and being replaced in a whirlwind every year.
After Madame Jyger’s lecture, they met a new instructor named Madame Krenner who immediately began critiquing their posture and their manners. Sallen turned out to be gifted at sitting with her legs crossed and walking with her shoulders back. Vivienne, on the other hand, kept getting caught in a slouch. She had a feeling Madame Krenner was about ready to skin her alive by the end of the day.
On the second day of their time at the Pearl Tower, they had a visitor. He was a name named Lord Henton, and he brought his nephew, Calbert Henton, along with him. Lord Henton was in charge of arranging the Midnight Masquerade, and he needed to inspect each inductee prior to their introduction into elite society. Each of them was to have a private interview with the lord.
Vivienne found out that her interview was last, so she had ample free time to spend in the courtyard. She decided to be good and to devote her time to humming The Aurora Song; a sweet, lively melody meant to set her Anemoi’s mind at ease. However, the more Vivienne sang, the more certain she became that she would drive anyone insane with her caterwauling. Luckily, she was still wearing her hooded cloak so no one would have recognized her even if they happened to walk by the courtyard. Finally, she decided to study her textbook. The area that most interested her was the map of Coral City and the direction to River Way. She decided that the best way to get rid of the cameo was simply to bury it where Blake had found it.
“Is this seat taken?” a boy asked. Vivienne looked up, expecting one of her fellow inductees. But no, it was a boy, wearing a dress shirt and fancy pants. Around his neck was a blue silk necktie with a ridiculously elaborate knot. He was huffing and puffing, turning as red as a tomato. Vivienne shook her head. He immediately collapsed on the marble seat across from her.
“Is it just me or is it hot as hell today?” he asked with a strained smile. Vivienne noticed his bulging neck veins. He was wheezing as he strained to breathe. As he took a deep, labored breath, one of his shirt buttons popped off and bounced away.
“I think your tie is on too tight,” Vivienne said.
“My uncle did it for me,” the boy replied as he tugged uselessly on the knot. “He says it is...supposed...to...” the boy attempted to lean over to pick up his button, but his face suddenly turned about three shades of purple. He gave a dull groan and fell head first onto the ground.
Vivienne looked around and saw that she was the only one in the courtyard. Darn, she was going to have to help him. She kneeled down and tugged at the knot at his throat. There was no give. He moaned, and his eyes rolled back in his head. Vivienne sighed. She hoped that Madame Krenner was far away because she would never condone what Vivienne was about to do. Vivienne leaned in and ripped at the silk with her teeth. Luckily, she nicked the edge, and she was able to rip the rest of it away.
The boy was coming to. With each breath, the color was returning to his face. Vivienne’s eyes fell on the initials CH on his breast pocket.
He nodded. “And you are, buddy?”
Vivienne frowned as he patted her heartily on the back. “I’m an Orlin.”
“You have a nice voice,” Calbert said. “My uncle made me dress up because he was hoping I would meet a girl. I guess it’s useless now.” Calbert snatched up the torn necktie and shoved it in his pocket. “Thanks, anyway. My stupid neck is just too fat. I tried to cut back on the cake, but I can’t help it. I’m always hungry.”
Vivienne rolled her eyes. It became clear to her that he thought she was a boy. Obviously, his neck wasn’t the only part of him that was stupid. He patted his stomach. She could hear it growling.
“There’s food in the meeting hall,” Vivienne offered. “It’s not much, but there is some smoked ham and cantaloupe.”
“Hey, thanks!” Calbert offered gleefully. He jumped to his feet. He was a tall boy, broad shoulders and square features. He was built like a gladiator. Vivienne was afraid that if he got up too quickly and fell over, he would squash her like a bug. “Want to come with me?” Calbert offered. “I don’t like to eat alone.”
Vivienne was about to refuse but decided that with her poor posture and manners she was in no position to refuse an invitation from a member of high society. She gathered her books and followed him into the meeting hall. There were two other female Orlins there. One was a panther and the other a crane. They pointed at the missing buttons on Calbert’s collar, giggled among themselves.
Calbert turned red and pretended to ignore them. He poured himself a glass of water and sat down. Vivienne guessed that the presence of the girls made him lose his appetite.
“Have you been an Orlin for a long time?” Calbert asked.
“I’m an inductee,” Vivienne responded. She picked herself up a plate of cantaloupe hoping that it would prompt him to eat, but it was no use.
“Oh, here’s a tip. During your meeting, ask my Uncle about his collection of limited edition Queen Belinda dishes. He will love you for it.” Calbert took a sip of his water. His large, meaty fingers fussed around with his sweat-stained collar.
“Is he a nice guy?” Vivienne asked.
“Nope,” Calbert replied. “Mean as a feral mountain goat.” Clabert smiled at her. “I am from outside of Coral City. My mom was a Henton before they threw her out for marrying my farmer father. My uncle adopted me a couple of years ago. He’s still trying to mold me into something presentable. He’s a persistent one, that old bag of bones.”
“I would have never known you’re not a native,” Vivienne offered.
“Thanks for the compliment,” Calbert responded as his eyes continued to dart fearfully toward the giggling girls. “I know these fancy clothes look ridiculous on me. My Uncle thinks that if I start drinking Nectar I could grow some brains. But, really, who would want to be my Orlin?” Calbert chuckled to himself. “I would be happy just to talk to a girl.”
Vivienne offered him a piece of her fruit. He took it shyly and quickly popped it into his mouth. “I’m sure you’ll meet someone. You seem nice enough.”
“Oh, don’t flatter me,” Calbert said and waved her complement away. “A talented guy like yourself, you’ll have your pick of the society of Coral City. I heard you singing. You have a voice like an angel.”
Vivienne smiled. He honestly seemed to mean that. “Well, Coral City is in for a treat,” Vivienne joked.
Vivienne’s meeting with Lord Henton did not start well. He was an elderly man with a long snowy beard in a wheelchair. She made the mistake of staring too long at his thin knobby knees before looking up to meet his eyes.
“Well, Miss Salome, you are our last and our oldest candidate.” He motioned for her to take a seat across from him. She sat down and heard every squeak of the chair blaring across the silent room. “Frankly, I’ve never seen anyone of your age at the Midnight Masquerade. I don’t even know why they summoned you.”
Vivienne wasn’t aware that turning eighteen was a sin. She swallowed thickly. He studied her with a vicious look in his eyes as though he expected her to apologize for having the gall to show up.
“The bond doesn’t work well when you’re past a certain level of maturity,” Lord Henton continued as though he was breaking terrible news to her. “I don’t see why any member of my society will be interested in you.”
“Well,” Vivienne replied. “Then, can I go home?”
“No,” Lord Henton snapped. “No, you cannot go home!” He threw his pen across the table. “You’re going to have to work harder to gain the interest of an Anemoi.” He sighed and rubbed his temples as though she was giving him a headache. “You’re not very attractive, that we can be absolutely certain of. No grace, no poise, and no manners. You maintain that glare on your face as though you’re a little witch.”
Vivienne was taken aback. She wondered if she should attempt to defend her glare but then decided to let him speak so that the entire encounter would end sooner.
“So, this is what you are going to do at the Midnight Masquerade,” Lord Henton said as he leaned forward and placed his folded hands on the table. “You’re going to go after the low-hanging fruit. I want to see you chatting with every loathsome, imbecile in the room. Let not a single doorman go uncharmed. Do you hear me?”
“Good,” Lord Henton said. “With a little luck maybe we can find a decent derelict for you. Now, you are dismissed.”
Blake Thorne wasn’t nearly as insufferable as her father made him sound. At first, she thought he was a pompous brat with his constant need to boast to her about his illustrious ancestor and his need to dress formally to every occasion. After a while, she realized that he was a lonely kid. According to her father, he spent more time throwing his books at his tutors than reading them. Her father even showed her evidence of sooty holes in his jacket where the demon child had hurled lit matches at him.
When Blake was with her, he was far from a monster. He almost seemed timid, vulnerable, even at times - obedient. She convinced him to explore his family’s gardens with her. There was an old weeping willow tree by the lake that was concealed by the boathouse. At the top of the tree was an abandoned chandelier. At some point, there had been a magnificent garden party here, and the trees were decorated with hanging lights. This was back when Blake’s father had been alive. Now, there were no more parties at Thorne Manor. That didn’t stop Vivienne from wanting to climb the tree to snatch shards of crystals from the chandelier.
Blake used to sit at the foot of the tree with a book while she climbed. His bad leg prevented him from getting far up the tree. Although Blake had a terrible temper, her father did admit that he never failed to complete a single assignment. He had a photographic memory, and this made Vivienne careful what she said around him. He never forgot anything and that it made it easy for him to catch her in a lie. He would have been terrifying had he not been such a pleasure to spend time with.
“I hate these simple-minded characters,” Blake complained as he slammed shut her father’s copy of Romeo and Juliet.
“Did you get to the end?” Vivienne asked, with an only half-hearted interest in his school work. She mischievously shook willow leaves into his impeccably brushed hair. “You’ll like it. Juliet kills Romeo with a poisoned kiss.”
“Is that really what happens?” Blake asked, giving her a disapproving look. “I have read this book before, you know.”
She giggled and threw a branch of the willow tree at him. He caught it and placed on the top of his head. Droplets of dew dripped down his forehead and into his beautiful eyes. He looked ethereal like a fairy boy newly emerged from Titania’s arms.
“Happy now?” He asked. She nodded and giggled.
“You always seem to find pleasure in my suffering. But you’re too easy to please, Vivienne.” He paused. “I’m a Thorne. I can give you so much. If you could have anything what would you want?”
Vivienne dangled from a lower branch of the tree and landed in the mud beside him. She showed him the crystal she collected. “I want you to help me collect treasure.”
“No, seriously.” Blake caught her by the wrist and pulled her into the crevasse of the willow roots beside him. She laid there with her head on his shoulder and his arm around her. Overhead, a gentle breeze shook the trees, sending a light flurry of greenery to the ground. She could lay there forever and feel completely content. She had a feeling he wouldn’t mind either. His fingers lightly caressed her dark hair. For a long time, there was nothing but the sound his breathing, softly, in and out between his parted lips.
“If I could have anything, Blake, I would want to comfort others,” Vivienne replied. “Sometimes, I wonder if I was born for a dark reason. I am scared that I could one day hurt others and enjoy it.”
“You are wrong. There are people who will happily die for a taste of that poisoned kiss.” He pulled her close and inhaled deeply. “They won’t have it any other way,” Blake whispered. He then turned his attention away and stared into the cloudless sky, lost in his own thoughts. “Vivienne,” he suddenly interrupted.
“Yes, Blake?” She replied mockingly addressing him with as much formality as he was suddenly addressing her.
“I have a secret to share with you.” He sat up and reached for his cane with resolve. “There’s an abandoned...graveyard...of sorts. It’s just beyond the edge of River Way. I think you, of all people, will appreciate what I found there.”