Ariadne stayed for a number of hours after the snowball fight concluded, one of which was spent locked away with Cosette in her wing. Alma, of course, didn’t approve of those two being alone together, expressing how the vampires were the enemy of mankind. She still seemed to think that Ariadne might somehow “corrupt” Cosette. I reminded her of Ariadne mentioning that she avoided the politics among the vampires and approved of Cosette doing the same. Alma didn’t feel we could take her at her word. I felt otherwise.
Cosette saw Ariadne to the door where Aaliyah happened to be waiting, and then joined the rest of us in the ballroom, bursting with excitement. Alma felt better about the situation after listening to Cosette babble about the different things she learned. Ariadne had apparently used her fey means of communication to better demonstrate how to maintain a mist-like form for an extended duration. Knowing the precise feeling of the method, Cosette was able to pull it off for several seconds. She explained that she simply didn’t have the strength yet to perform such a feat for long. She also told us about learning various methods of healing. Apparently, she had told Ariadne of how she healed Alma from Raine’s scratch, and Ariadne was quite happy to share some of what she knew.
An unexpected visitor arrived minutes later, soon enough that I had wondered if Ariadne had forgotten something. I was surprised when Mila guided a man into the room. He was older, perhaps in his late thirties, and dressed in a very fine black suit. When I rose to greet him, he bowed low, holding out an elaborate, glowing envelope. Not knowing what else to do, I accepted it.
The man immediately rose, nodding as he said, “Good day, sir.” Then he exited the room with me staring at him, feeling somewhat bewildered.
“Don’t open that envelope.” demanded Alma.
“I was about to ask you what this spell is.” I told her.
“Of course. My apologies, but I didn’t want anyone to be injured. This is a formal letter of challenge. The glow is meant to be a courtesy, warning those who look upon it that this letter will kill them if opened.” she explained.
“What? That seems extreme.” I replied.
Shrugging, she said, “Thousands of years ago, my family developed a system for ensuring the safety of our correspondence, since the head of the family can’t be bothered with every last detail. Even using spells to examine the contents will likely unleash a spell. If the letter isn’t delivered in a timely manner, the last of the seal’s energy will destroy it.”
“Then how am I supposed to read it?” I asked.
“Ideally, the key should have arrived first. Hopefully, a second courier will arrive soon.” she told me.
“Great. Any suggestions on what we do with the letter in the meantime?” I asked.
“With your permission, I’ll hold onto it.” she offered.
“Is that safe?” I inquired.
“Perfectly. Fire is the most common means of destroying letters, which I could stop. The others aren’t lethal to the bearer.” she assured me.
“What kind of challenge are we talking about?” asked Brandon.
“Let’s say that someone disapproves of James and me dating, so they’re going to fight him.” explained Alma.
Scoffing, Brandon said, “Wow. That’s crazy.”
“We find it romantic.” argued Ai and Mai in unison.
“You’d want me to fight someone for you?” teased Jarod.
“No.” replied Ai.
Mai walked over to him, saying, “The idea of the fights is romantic. The actuality is…”
“Tragic.” stated Ai. “Someone usually ends up dead.”
“Dead? What!?” exclaimed Brandon. “That’s crazy!”
“People don’t do things like that anymore. They… they just don’t.” insisted Brenna.
“Such events are rather common in my family. The crowd that will gather for it are supposed to act as witnesses to the fight’s validity, but many are there for sport.” explained Alma.
“What happens if he refuses?” asked Brenna.
Cosette, sounding shocked by the idea, said, “James and Alma won’t be allowed to date.” Realizing the rest of us were staring at her, she quickly added “Well, if things are as they were in my father’s time at least.”
“Your father taught you a great many things about our family, didn’t he.” stated Alma, seeming to examine Cosette as she did.
With a small shrug Cosette replied “I didn’t really believe half of them.”
She wasn’t lying exactly, but something was off. Did she believe them all now?
“What I don’t get is the timing of the letter.” stated Ai.
“Is the letter arriving now, one day after my sister returned to us, a coincidence?” asked Mai.
“This seems far too soon.” insisted Ai.
“You’re suggesting that the sender might be responsible?” inquired Alma.
“You might be right, but there might well be a bigger player involved, someone who encourage both acts and controlled the timing.” suggested Alma.
“I want to know who abducted Ai as much as the three of you, but aren’t we ignoring something more pressing? James can’t kill someone.” stated Jarod.
“He’s perfectly capable.” replied Alma.
“Sure, he’s strong and fast. He seems to have a knack for magic.” admitted Jarod. Then he turned to me and said, “But I know you. You aren’t a killer. What are you going to do?”
“They’re allowed to submit.” I told him, reassuring myself as well.
“If you’re too busy trying to be gentle, you’re vulnerable.” insisted Jarod. “You shouldn’t enter a fight like this if your heart’s not in it.”
I smiled and said, “That’s the problem. My heart is in it. I’m not giving up Alma, Jarod.”
“See.” stated Mai.
“That’s the romantic side.” agreed Ai.
Romantic or not, I simply wasn’t willing to abandon Alma, not after finally getting to this point. I couldn’t deny Jarod’s point though. One of Jarod’s strength when he fought was his complete lack of compassion, something I found eerie in my dear friend. Where I would be patiently waiting for the right moment to gain the upper hand, Jarod created openings while exploiting every movement his opponent made. He was vicious in a fight. I still didn’t know what I’d do if an opponent managed to press me too far and that thought scared me. I could die.