Chapter 1: A Quiet Evening
Gradually, the last of the butterflies that had once been the corpse bride vanished from view, swallowed up by the velvet night sky. Victor and Victoria remained where they were for a long moment, gazing up at the moon in silence. Finally, Victor whispered, "Goodbye Emily."
Victoria looked at him, at the bouquet still held in her hands, then back at the moon. "Goodbye Emily," she echoed. "And thank you."
"Ahem. . . ."
The couple turned to find Elder Gutknecht behind them, the Wine of Ages and attendant goblet clutched in his skeletal fingers. "Well, my boy," he said, "it appears you have a few years left in this world yet."
Victor smiled and nodded. "Yes, it appears I do." His eyes flicked back toward the sky as the smile faded, replaced by his more customary worried look. "Is she – I mean, what just happened – I want to be sure–"
"It was what was meant to be," Elder Gutknecht told him. "A full explanation would take more time than I have, and I'm not sure it was ever meant for mortal ears. But she's happy, and she's free. Her murder has been avenged at long last, and she's received her proof that love really does exist. The poor girl has had her doubts over the years."
"I'm sure," Victoria said, frowning in sympathy. "Poor Emily. . .the look on her face when she saw Lord Barkis. . .what will happen to him, by the way?"
It was amazing how expressive a skeleton could be without a proper face. A subtle angling of the head to catch the moonlight in a certain way, and suddenly the Elder's permanent grin became, just for a moment, more of a smirk. "He's not going to enjoy his afterlife as much as we have, I can assure you of that."
Victor looked back at the door where the lord (if he really was one) had been dragged down Below by the very eager dead. A sick, hot pleasure filled his stomach. It wasn't in his nature to hate, but the revelation of what Barkis had done – along with the knowledge that Emily's fate had come within a knife's edge of being Victoria's as well – made him go against the grain. "Good."
"Yes," Victoria agreed, eyes narrowed to slits. "I hope he has a lot of time to think about how he's hurt others." Her face flushed pink. "As unladylike as that sounds."
Elder Gutknecht chuckled. "Never fear, my dear – I won't tell anyone." He rolled his skull on his neck, the moonlight glinting off his glasses. "I wish you both all the best."
"Thank you, Elder Gutknecht," Victor said, smiling at the old skeleton. It was funny just how fond he'd become of him – of all the dead, really – during his brief stay Below. Or maybe not – he'd never met a group of people so friendly and welcoming in all his life. To be accepted as one of their own right from the start, even with a pulse in his wrist and breath in his lungs. . .he was going to miss them. "May we all meet again someday."
"We will – we all do, in the end." He patted Victor's arm. "But until then – enjoy your life, Victor. Make every moment count. It's what she would have wanted."
Victor nodded solemnly. "I will."
"Good." The Elder inclined his head at Victoria, who dropped a polite curtsy. Then he turned and hobbled his way to the back door. Green light spilled out as he opened it, and Victor fancied he could hear Lord Barkis screaming as the others dedicated themselves to justice. Then the old wood creaked shut, and the church went dark and silent. Deep in his gut, Victor knew that was it – that if he tried to follow the Elder, all he'd find was Pastor Galswells's personal quarters. This world and the next were separate once again.
Victoria stared at the pitted door. "It doesn't feel real, does it?" she said suddenly. "I feel like any moment now I'm going to wake up and it'll all have been a fantastic dream."
Victor chuckled. That same thought had been plaguing him throughout his adventure. Even after nearly giving himself a concussion on the Ball & Socket's bar. "I'm half-expecting to turn around and suddenly find myself nose to plank with my bedroom floor."
Figures were filing past them now – those few remaining living who'd been brave enough to stay in their seats throughout the sword-and-fork fight, now ready to leave all this strangeness behind and get on with their normal lives. The last was an old, bent woman who looked vaguely familiar to Victor – oh, yes, the Everglots' maid Hildegarde. "Miss Victoria, we must get home," she said, wringing her hands as she approached them. "Your parents are surely in a frightful state."
"Oh yes," Victoria said, grimacing. "They did not take seeing Great-Grandfather Everglot well at all. . .I hope they believe me when I tell them everything's all right now."
"May I accompany you?" Victor asked. Bold, perhaps, but he wasn't ready to see her leave just yet. After all, he'd spent most of the day convinced he'd lost her forever to another man. "I mean – s-surely it isn't right to let two women go out walking alone at this time of night."
Victoria smiled up at him. "I'd like that." Her eyes drifted back down to her bouquet. "And besides, you need to tell me everything that happened. How you met Emily, and why you decided to marry her."
"We'll need to walk slow, then," Victor said, offering his arm. Victoria took it, and extended her own arm for Hildegarde to lean on. "It's quite the story." He took a deep breath. "After Pastor Galswells banished me from your drawing room – um, by the way, I'm sorry for setting your mother on fire – I fled to the woods to find some privacy to practice my vows. . . ."
It all came pouring out as they made their way down the twisty path from the church back to the Everglot mansion – accidentally awakening Emily with the ring on her finger, finding himself in the Land of the Dead, receiving Scraps as his wedding present, attempting to escape only for it to go horribly awry, playing the duet with Emily, hearing about Victoria's marriage, deciding to give Emily the wedding she'd always dreamed of, and arriving again in the Land of the Living. He didn't think he'd ever spoken so much at one time in all his life – nor had such a rapt audience. Victoria and Hildegarde listened intently to every word he said – almost too intently, Victor thought. The expression on Victoria's face when he told about the surge of joy he'd gotten when he recognized his long-dead dog, or the wonder at seeing Emily dance so gleefully in the moonlight, or the shame and guilt transformed into warmth and happiness during their time together at the piano. . .well, it was hard to read. Not angry, he could tell that much, but very thoughtful. Which was almost worse. "And then – w-well, you were there to see us start to exchange our vows. . .and then Barkis arrived, and you know everything from that point," he finished, his free hand playing with his tie.
Victoria nodded, lips pressed tightly together as she contemplated his words. "You cared for her quite a bit, didn't you?" she asked. "When she dragged you out of my bedroom, I was half-convinced you'd been captured by a demon. But it wasn't like that at all, was it?"
"No," Victor confirmed. "That mess was all my fault. I should have told her about you, about our a-arrangement, from the start. But first I was too shocked, just trying to figure out what was going on. . .and then, after h-hearing what happened to her, I – I wanted to find a way to explain things to her that wouldn't completely break her heart. Which I ended up doing anyway. . . ." "Why can't you understand it was a mistake? I would never marry you!" Those words hurt more than Barkis's sword ever could. How could he have been so callous, so cruel? Yes, he'd been stressed and angry and still a little scared, but to actually let such a statement out of his mouth. . .how Emily had found it within herself to forgive him, he would never understand. "But yes, I did care for her. She was – she was nice. I wish I could have introduced you to her properly. Under different circumstances, I think you might have liked her."
"So do I," Victoria agreed softly. "The moment her eyes met mine in the church. . .I wish I could tell her I'm sorry for thinking her evil. She was a truly lovely person. Who didn't deserve what happened to her in the slightest." She looked up at the moon. "I hope she's at peace."
"Elder Gutknecht seems to think so," Victor said. "And I'd trust him on these matters. He knows much more than we do about how it all works."
"I'm sure he does." Victoria gave his arm a little squeeze. "And I'm sure it's all worked out for the best."
Victor smiled at her. "Me too."
Victoria smiled back – then noticed they were standing before the front doors to her house. "Oh dear," she sighed, playing with a loose rose petal. "I am not looking forward to this."
"Should I come in?" Victor asked, not sure if he wanted Victoria to say yes or not. On the one hand, he'd have more time with Victoria. On the other – he'd have to face her parents. "Try to explain myself?"
Hildegarde shook her head. "I don't think that would be a good idea, Master Van Dort. They're not exactly fond of you at the moment."
"I have to agree – Father would probably just call for his musket and not listen to a word you say," Victoria said, grimacing. "Let me have the night to calm them down, then tomorrow you can come over and hopefully we can all talk like civilized people."
"All right," Victor said, quietly relieved he did not have to see the disapproving glares of the Everglots again. "I – I suppose this is where we part, then."
Victoria nodded, slipping her arm out of his. "I'll see you in the morning," she said. "Things should be better by then."
Victor nodded back. "We hope. I wish you luck in talking to your parents." You're going to need it.
"Thank you – I need as much as I can get," Victoria replied, as if she'd heard his thought. "Sleep well." She gave him a warm smile, the kind that turned his heart into melting butter. "We'll be together again very soon."
That was just what he needed to hear. Victor reached out and took her hand, relishing in this last moment of contact. "A good night to you, Victoria. And you too, Miss Hildegarde."
"Thank you, Master Van Dort," Hildegarde said, patting his arm. "Good night."
"Good night," Victoria echoed, giving his hand a final squeeze. Then she took a deep breath, turned around, yanked open the door, and marched inside, like a general heading to the war room. Hildegarde followed, giving Victor one last polite nod before pulling the door closed behind her.
Victor lingered on the doorstep briefly, assuring himself that Victoria was safe inside and far away from Bluebeard shaved and brought to life. Then all the exhaustion and hunger and other unpleasant emotions he'd been doing his best to keep at bay finally caught up with him. Suddenly, the only things in the world he wanted were something to fill his belly and someplace to sleep, not necessarily in that order. Covering a loud yawn with his hand, he dragged himself across the square to his own house.
It was dark and quiet inside the front hall when he opened the door. Victor fumbled around until he managed to light the candle kept on the side table. Now where were his parents? The servants' absence he could excuse – they were probably still in a tizzy from what had just happened. But Mother and Father seemed to have vanished off the face of the earth. What could have happened to them? The only thing he was certain of was that they were not dead – otherwise, he would have seen them Below. Maybe they went off somewhere looking for me? I should have asked Mayhew when I had the chance.
Right now, though, he was far too exhausted to ponder the question for long. Guided by the flickering flame, he forced himself up the stairs to his room. He took a moment to soak in the calming familiarity of it all – the butterfly sketches tacked up on the walls, the tall desk tucked in front of the window, the easel and canvases propped up in the far corner. Then he set the candle on his nightstand, took off his shoes, and flopped onto his bed without even undressing. Within moments, he was asleep.