Bloodspell (The Cruentus Curse, #1)(6)

"It's strange, I do feel different. My body feels like it could run a marathon, like I've had six cups of coffee or something. I've had pins and needles all morning. Even Leto won't come near me."

"Sounds like birthday jitters to me," Holly said. "No wonder, seventeen, that's a big milestone."

"You said that last year when I was sixteen, remember? 'Sweet sixteen is a big milestone,'" she quoted in a chirpy falsetto.

"Well, it is, and they all are," Holly argued good-naturedly. "And I do not sound like that."

"You do when you get excited," Victoria said, pouring herself a second cup of coffee. "Seriously though, why is it even called sweet sixteen? It's so archaic. It's not even a true coming-of-age anymore. Don't you know eleven is the new sixteen?"

"Very funny," said Holly. "When I grew up, sweet sixteen was about celebrating girlhood into adulthood. I think the saying sweet sixteen comes from 'sweet sixteen and never been kissed.'"

"Don't look at me, I'd hardly know. I've never kissed anyone, unless you count Peter from church when I was thirteen. Gross. Anyway, I'm glad sweet sixteen is over. I can honestly say there was nothing sweet about it."

"Maybe this will be your sweet seventeen then," Holly said with a wink, and Victoria rolled her eyes. "Your grandmother always said that seventeen was a big deal too, you know, like a rite of passage."

Victoria turned and leveled a suspicious glance in Holly's direction. "Aunt Holly, you haven't gone and done anything crazy, have you?"

"Now, now, Tori, don't get that tone with me, young lady. A young woman deserves something special on her seventeenth birthday, doesn't she? I really think, no ... I insist that you should have something special! Happy Birthday, Tori!" Holly put two gaily-wrapped boxes in front of Victoria on the table. "Go on, open!"

"Aunt Holly! You do too much already!" Victoria said. "You spoil me."

"Don't deny an old lady her joys, darling."

"Old lady? Whatever!" Victoria laughed as she squeezed her thoughtful, infuriating, wonderful aunt in a bear-hug. "But this is the last time, okay. No more," she joked, before removing the wrapping paper carefully and opened the smaller of the two boxes. Inside, nestled on a bed of cotton gauze, was a delicate, golden key. She looked questioningly at Holly who indicated that she should now open the second, larger box.

"Oh no, Aunt Holly, you didn't!" Victoria gasped and pulled the shiny, thin laptop from its plastic wrapping. She held it gingerly in her hands. "It's too much, really it is!"

"Do you like it? Jim at the shop told me it was top of the line, and great for writing or drawing. I know you're always doodling in that notebook of yours, and well, the one I've got is practically extinct as you know." She laughed.

"I love it! It's perfect! You're perfect! I can't believe you got me a Mac! The graphics in these things are amazing! It's got like a super fast processor and stacks of RAM. And look how thin it is! It's so pretty!"

"I'm so happy that you're happy, Tori," Holly said. "I don't know about rams and sheep and whatnot, but I'm so glad you like it. Seeing that smile again was worth it. I was worried it wouldn't be the right one, you know how you young people are." She reached for a package beside her. "I still have one more thing for you."

Victoria touched the laptop's shiny surface reverently. "You've already done so much, Aunt Holly. Really."

"Well, this one is indirectly from your grandmother," Holly said, lifting a delicately carved wooden box from beneath several layers of yellowing tissue paper.

"My grandmother?" Victoria repeated, confused. Her grandmother had died when she was eight.

"This was her music box. That's what the golden key is for. Before she died, she told me that I was to pass it to you on your seventeenth birthday. She said it was important, that she meant for you to have it."

With infinite care, Victoria held the music box. It was a warm, worn, cherry-wood interlaid with rosewood, crisscrossed by delicate gold carvings in an intricate design. She squinted closely ... the design looked like some sort of crest. She ran her hands across the top of it and it warmed to her touch.

Feeling strangely expectant, she put the small gold key into the lock and turned the latch. As she opened the top, the faint smell of gardenias drifted up and a haunting melody hummed. It was Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven.

Victoria swallowed, her throat tight, and realized that Holly had left the room to give her some privacy. Inside the box was a collection of papers, some yellowed with age, and a small red velvet box. The top piece of paper was folded over and inscribed with her name. She opened it with surprise.

My darling Victoria,

How I wish I could have seen you grow up. You were so full of life and carried so much joy, my beautiful granddaughter. If this box has come to you in the manner I wished, you will be reading this on your seventeenth birthday. This is a special birthday for Warrick women. It marks both an end and a beginning, the end of what we know and the beginning of what we are to become. Don’t fear it. Embrace it. You are a Warrick.

All my love,

Your Loving Grandmother, Emmeline Warrick

Victoria read the letter again, savoring the memory of the voice behind the words, then shuffled through the rest of the papers. There were many more letters, some quite old, that appeared to have been written to other Warrick girls on their seventeenth birthdays, all with the same message. She realized that the letters must be some sort of coming of age ritual for the women in her family. They seemed to cling to her hands as if they were part of her, drawn to her mysteriously, and she liked the feeling they gave her. She also found a thin notebook that looked like a journal. She put it aside; she would read it later. The red velvet box beckoned.

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