Monday, October 15, 2012

Chapter 2, Firebird

Hi everyone,

Here's chapter 2 from Firebird.  You can find chapter 1 under September.




Chapter 2.
 

William and I walked through the trees in silence.

            I was rattled, and I could tell he was worried.

            Cursed, damned, outcast.

            Those were words that William had used to describe himself on more than one occasion, and words that had floated through my mind back at the skating rink.

            In a way, those same words could be used to describe me.

            I let my mind stray to the words it had shied away from before.

            Vampire.  Sìdh.

            They were words that did not properly belong to this world.  And yet I knew they were part of this world all the same.

            William had been one of the Sìdh once—a race of bright, immortal creatures of great power.  And then he had been attacked by a vampire and turned—though how long ago this had occurred exactly, I did not know.  The Sìdh had cast him out, taken his memories, left him to wander.  He had found an unexpected home with the vampires of Krov, Russia—the village in which I had been born.

            And I myself was a descendent of the Sìdh.  My grandfather had been sent to Krov to found a line of humans with Sìdh blood—something the Sìdh did every so many generations in fulfillment of an ancient treaty.  The children of such unions were gifted with a unique ability, and an obligation, to combat evil spirits of great strength and age—particularly one known as the kost.

            A kost was an evil spirit inhabiting—and animating—a human corpse.

            My mother was the only child of this particular Sìdh union, and like all those before her, she was known as the Little Sun.  She was ordained by her birth to be the protector of Krov, and in this capacity she had fought and imprisoned a kost named Gleb Mstislav in his family's crypt.  And he had worked in secret to poison and kill her.

            My father had died shortly before her in an ordinary accident—he had died while hiking.  And I had been left an orphan in the care of my grandmother, GM, who knew nothing of my grandfather's true nature or my mother's purpose in life.

            And then this past October Gleb had escaped from his crypt, aided by his son Timofei and my own cousin Odette.  Gleb had come after me in Elspeth's Grove, hoping to kill me.  My struggle with him took me to Russia, where William and I had worked together to destroy him.

            On my mother's death, I had become the new Little Sun, though I didn't even know any such thing existed.  And shortly after my sixteenth birthday I had begun to have visions, which I had learned were meant to help me in my battle against creatures like Gleb.  But after Gleb had been defeated, and I had returned to Elspeth's Grove, the visions had stopped.

            I had thought that it was over—that the darkness in Krov was something I had left behind forever.  I had thought that I was free to live in Elspeth's Grove in peace with William.

            But there were vampires from Krov in Elspeth's Grove now, and if they were telling me the truth, there was a price on my head now.

            I shivered as I thought of Anton and Innokenti.  How long had they been following William and me?  How long had they been watching us?  Had they seen me at the house with GM?

            I didn't want her to be in danger because of me.

            "How did they find us?" I asked William.

            William blinked as if I had startled him out of his train of thought.  "What was that?"

            "Innokenti and Anton," I said.  "How did they find us?  I'm sure I never told Innokenti that I lived in Elspeth's Grove."

            William laughed—a strangely humorless sound.  "You need not have told Innokenti anything.  He has ways of finding things out."

            William lapsed back into silence.

            "You and Anton appear to know each other," I said after a moment.

            "Yes," William replied reluctantly.  "He lived in the vampire colony in Krov at the same time as I did."

            "The two of you don't get along?" I asked.

            "No."

            "Why not?"

            "It doesn't matter now," he said quietly.  "And I'd rather not discuss it.  Please don't ask me to tell you."

            There was a note of finality in William's voice, and I knew he would say no more about Anton.

            "What do you think they really want from us?" I asked.  "Did you believe Innokenti when he said that someone is after us, and that he wants to protect us?"

            "No," William said.  "It's a scare tactic.  Innokenti's trying to trick us into doing what he wants.  There's no one after us."

            "Are you sure about that?" I asked.  "One hundred percent sure?"

            William paused for a moment before answering.

            "No."

            I felt a sense of dread settle over me.  "So it's possible that Innokenti was telling the truth?"

            "It is possible—but it's a remote possibility.  You asked me if I was one hundred percent sure it's a trick.  I can't be one hundred percent sure.  But I know Innokenti and the rest of them.  They don't act in the interests of others—no matter what he says.  They only act to help themselves."

            "Why do you think they want us then?"

            William shook his head.  "I think it's best if we don't find out."

            We walked in silence again for a time before I asked the question that was weighing the heaviest on my mind.

            "Do you really think they'll just take no for an answer?"

            William looked at me, and a muscle worked in his jaw.

            He did not reply.

            Soon the trees we walked through began to thin, and we were in sight of my neighborhood.  The thought of vampires lurking near my house left me feeling deeply uneasy.

            I clutched at William's sleeve, and he stopped walking.

            "Do you think Innokenti and Anton will leave Elspeth's Grove?  Do you think they're watching us right now?"

            William took my face in his hands.  "They aren't nearby right now—I would hear them if they were.  And I don't know what they are planning to do, but you and your grandmother will be safe.  I'll see to that."

            "William, if there really is a price on my head—if there really are two groups after me—"

            William interrupted.  "Have I let you down yet?"

            "No, you've never let me down," I said.

            "Trust me—I'll take care of it."  William smiled.  "Now, let's go see your grandmother."

            He took my hand and started in the direction of my house.

            "William, wait."  I said.  "I don't think we can spring your presence on GM like this.  I don't have any idea how she's going to react."

            "Katie, don't be ridiculous," William said, exasperated.  "Our situation is serious—manageable—but serious.  And I need to be around more.  I need to have your grandmother accept and approve of my being here."

            "I know," I replied.  "That's why we can't just surprise her today.  It won't do us any good if she throws you out of the house as soon as she sees you.  Let me talk to her alone first.  Come see me tomorrow at school, and I'll let you know when you can see her."

            William started to protest, but I interrupted him.

            "It will be soon—I promise.  Who knows?  Maybe she'll even invite you to dinner."

            William gave me a tolerant look.  "All right, but make sure it is soon.  The sooner everything is out in the open, the better."

            "I'll bring GM around," I said.  "I promise."

            We started walking again, and we paused at the corner of my street, like we usually did.

            "At least I know now why you never let me walk you up to your door," William said.  "I realize that I should have been more suspicious."

            "What did you think before?" I asked.

            William shrugged.  "Humans are often uncomfortable around vampires—even incomplete ones like me.  I thought maybe she didn't like to look at me, and you were tactfully not telling me."

            "William," I said.  "I can't imagine anyone not wanting to look at you."

            William shook his head.  But I thought I could see the ghost of a smile on his lips.

            "I'll see you tomorrow at school then, Katie," he said, turning to leave.  "I'll be watching to see that you and your grandmother are safe tonight."

            "William—I have one more question."

            He turned back.

            "What about that last thing that Innokenti said?" I asked.  "What did he mean when he said that 'they' will not allow me to remain with you.  Who are 'they'?"

            William looked away from me.  "As I said, I think this is all a trick.  You don't have to worry about what Innokenti said."

            "But you do have some idea of what he was implying?"

            "I have an idea—but I can't be sure.  In any event, you don't need to know.  I'll see you tomorrow, Katie."

            William gave me a small smile and walked off.

            I stood looking after him with a familiar sense of disappointment.  I wished he had trusted me with his suspicions.

            Once William had disappeared from view, I walked up to my house and went inside.

            I paused in the hall just by the door and tried to figure out how I was going to tell GM that William was in Elspeth's Grove and that I had been seeing him.

            I knew it wasn't going to be easy.

            To be fair to GM, I didn't know for certain that she disliked William.  But the two times she had spoken to him had been difficult times, and William's entrance into our lives had coincided with the return of the past for GM.  My mother, in her short life, had become deeply involved in the supernatural—she'd really had no choice.  And the supernatural was something my grandmother had not believed in until it had burst into her house in October in a way that she couldn't deny.

            Having the reanimated corpse of a man she knew to be dead break into her house was something even GM couldn't ignore.

            But GM was stubborn, and her rational mind had reasserted itself after the initial shock had worn off.  She'd been able to convince herself that all of the bizarre things she'd seen had a perfectly normal explanation.

            GM feared that I would fall under the spell of the supernatural and be consumed by it as my mother had been, and I had a feeling that GM saw William as part of that supernatural threat.  She didn't know who and what he was, of course—to her he was just an ordinary young man.  But he'd been involved in events that she'd rather forget.

            And I was afraid that she would prefer that William were forgotten, too.

            I continued to stand by the door in an agony of indecision, trying to force my mind to work.  I tried to come up with just the right words to convince GM that she had nothing to worry about—that William was beneficial and not a danger.  After a few moments, I began to wonder if GM would come out to see me before I'd come up with a plan—I knew she must have heard me come in.

            But time passed, and GM did not appear.

            I took a tentative step forward.  It was a little unusual for GM not to come see what I was up to as soon as I came home.  But she had been distracted lately, and it was pretty obvious to me that something was on her mind.  When I had asked her about it, however, GM had brushed me off rather expertly—she was very good at side-stepping questions.

            GM had a way of talking around a topic and avoiding it without ever directly refusing to talk about it.

            In a way, it was a gift.

            After another few moments had passed, I decided to take GM on without a plan.  I would just go in determined not to lose.  After all, there was no good reason for me not to see William—he had already saved my life twice.  Surely, I could make her see that we were better off with him than without him.

            I walked through the house, but I didn't find GM in any of the usual places.  Eventually, I found GM in her office where I had left her earlier, which was odd—she didn't usually spend much time there on the weekends.  She said she wanted to keep her home life and her work life separate—even if they co-existed in the same place.

            As I entered the office, GM's head was bent, and I could see that she was pouring over a letter.  GM had been receiving a lot of letters lately—letters that she wouldn't talk about, but would hastily tuck away.  I could see an envelope on the desk beside her.  It had a number of colorful stamps on it—as if it had been mailed from overseas.  I wondered—could GM be receiving letters from Russia?

            "GM?" I said quietly.

            GM turned in her chair, clearly startled.  With admirable economy of movement, she swept her letter back into its envelope, and deposited the envelope into a drawer.

            "Oh, Katie!  I didn't hear you come in.  How was your first time ice skating?"

            "It was good," I said.  "I didn't break anything, and I actually made it all the way around the rink several times."  I paused.  "Did you receive a letter from Galina?"

            GM stood up.  "Letter?"

            "Yes," I said.  "You had a letter in your hand when I came in, and the stamps seemed to be foreign.  I was wondering if maybe you'd heard from Galina.  I know you've been in contact with her."

            Galina Golovnin had been a friend of my mother's.  Although she was the same age as my mother, she had been a teacher of sorts to her—helping my mother to develop and hone her powers as the Little Sun.  When I had encountered her in Russia, she had helped me too.  Galina's life was deeply steeped in the supernatural, something GM had resented bitterly.  But since our recent trip to Russia, GM's attitude toward Galina had relaxed a bit.  She was no longer determined to banish Galina to the past and pretend that she had never existed.

            "Galina?" GM said.  "Oh, no.  No.  I have not heard from her lately."

            I waited expectantly.

            GM, who was always so confident and self-possessed, suddenly seemed very unsure of herself.  She wrapped her fingers around the silver cross she always wore and began to move the charm up and down on its chain in an agitated fashion.  She looked around the room.  Then she looked back at me.

            "Enough about the letter.  Forget about the letter.  Solnyshko, I have something to tell you—to ask you, rather."

            'Solnyshko' was a Russian term of endearment that GM often used for me—one that lots of people used.  Oddly enough the word literally meant 'little sun.'  GM had been using it for me for as long as I could remember.  She had no idea how apt it really was.

            I took a deep breath.  "I have something to tell you, too."

            "Excellent.  Then we have news to share with one another.  Let's go in the kitchen, Solnyshko.  Are you hungry?"

            "No, I'm not hungry," I said, as GM shepherded me out of her office.

            "Some tea, then," GM said.  "It is always good to have tea when one talks."

            I wasn't really keen on the idea of having tea.  I'd lost my taste for tea and for hot drinks in general after I'd discovered that my mother had been poisoned by tea laced with vampire blood.  I had been tricked into drinking some of the stuff myself, and the memory of it was an unpleasant one.  But if drinking some tea would make GM happy, then I would go along with it.

            In the kitchen, GM waved me to a seat, and she put the kettle on.  Then she sat down across from me and gave me a level gaze.  We sat like that for several moments, and I began to shift uncomfortably under her steady stare.

            "GM, let's—"

            "Not just yet, Solnyshko.  Wait for the tea."

            "Would you mind looking in another direction for a few moments, then?" I asked.  "You're making me nervous."

            GM gave me a wry smile.  "My apologies, Solnyshko."  She rose.  "I need to get the tea things out anyway."

            GM got out her blue-and-white china teacups—the same ones she had used on the night that Galina Golovnin and her son, Aleksandr, had shown up on our doorstep to warn us that Gleb Mstislav would soon be after me.  GM had not believed them and had thrown them out.

            But they had been right.

            Soon the kettle was whistling, and GM poured out for us.  I gazed into the golden depths of the tea reluctantly.  I knew it was chamomile, and I knew it was untainted, but I couldn't help thinking again of the poisoned tea my cousin Odette had given me.

            I shivered.

            GM glanced up at me.  "Are you cold, Solnyshko?"

            I gave her a reassuring smile.  "No.  I was just thinking.  You know how sometimes a memory steals over you and catches you in a funny way?"

            "I do indeed," GM replied.

            She sipped at her tea and gave me a look over the rim of her cup.  Then she set it down with decision.

            "Katie, I know we both have things to say, and I hope you don't mind if I go first."

            "Go ahead," I said.

            "Thank you."  GM paused for a moment.  "Do you remember what I said to you in Tblisi?  I promised you that when that whole terrible business was over, that we would do some proper traveling?"

            "I remember," I said.

            GM took a deep breath, as if she were gathering courage.  "What do you think about spending Christmas in Russia?"

            I didn't know what I had been expecting, but that was not it.

            Several memories flashed through my mind—all of them terrifying.

            "Christmas in Russia?" I said.

            "Yes."  GM nodded her head in an encouraging fashion.

            "In Krov?" I asked.

            "Yes."

            My head began to spin a little.  I loved Russia—I really did.  It was the country of my birth, and I thought it was beautiful.  But going back to Krov seemed dangerous at this point—especially since I had just met two vampires who wanted me to do exactly that.

            "Why do you want to go to Krov for Christmas?" I asked.  "Does it have something to do with all the letters?"

            "Letters?" GM asked innocently.

            "Yes, GM," I said.  "Letters like the one you were reading in your office just now.  I've seen you with them before—and the envelopes always have a lot of foreign stamps on them."

            "Ah, yes.  It appears you have sharp eyes, Solnyshko.  You don't have anything to be concerned about.  The letters are not from anyone you know."

            "Who are they from?"

            GM shook her head.  "Sometimes a grandmother needs to keep some things to herself.  Do not distress yourself over the letters, Katie."

            I decided to give up.  Once GM decided she wasn't going to talk about something, she very seldom changed her mind.  I stared back down at my tea.

            "Solnyshko, forgive me," GM said, "but you do not seem very excited about going to Krov.  I thought you would be happy.  I thought we might go to Moscow, too.  You would love all of the beautiful buildings in the great square.  St. Basil's Basilica is a wonder in person."

            I tried to think of how to put my thoughts into words, but what I wanted to say seemed to need more diplomacy than I was able to summon at the moment.  I wanted to tell GM that I wished she would tell me what was going on and who had written the letters.  I wanted to tell her that I had nearly died in Krov, and it was full of bad memories.  I wanted to tell her that we couldn't go back to Krov because the village was crawling with vampires—and some of those vampires were eager for my return.  But the right words just wouldn't come—especially for the last part.  How could I hint at a danger that I wasn't allowed to name?

            GM leaned forward.  "What is it that is troubling you, Solnyshko?  Are you worried about not having a visa?  If that is the case, then you need worry no longer.  I have already obtained visas for both of us.  We can fly directly into Russia."

            I was startled.  When we had gone to Russia in October, we had actually had to fly into Georgia and sneak across the border because Russia required a visa for U.S. visitors while Georgia did not.  If GM had visas for us already, then she had been planning the trip for some time now and had never mentioned it to me.

            "GM," I said, "why won't you tell me what's going on?"

            "It's Christmas, Katie.  I haven't spent a Christmas in Russia in many years.  I miss my homeland."

            I felt a twinge of frustration.  I knew GM was sincere when she said that, and to be fair, the reason she gave was a perfectly good one.  But I couldn't shrug off a suspicion that that wasn't all there was to it.  Then again, I wondered—what exactly was it that I suspected GM of?  I really didn't know.

            "Where are you thinking of staying in Krov?" I asked.  "Odette's house?"

            GM gave me a sharp look.  "So is that what is troubling you?  Your poor cousin?  I can understand that it must be hard for you.  It is hard for me, too, Solnyshko.  You loved Odette and so did I.  And hope is not lost entirely.  People have been restored to their families after going missing for years, and Odette has only been gone a few months.  We may yet see her again."

            Seeing Odette again was one of the things I was worried about—as William had told Innokenti, it was entirely possible that Odette would return.  She had gone missing.  But she was not lost in the way that GM thought she was—in the way that an ordinary human girl would be lost.  Odette had become a vampire, and in October she had tried to kill me.  She had disappeared after that, and her house in Krov had been left vacant.  If we settled ourselves into her house at Christmas, who was to say that she wouldn't return and resent our presence?  I had seen Odette when she was angry—it was a truly terrifying sight.

            So, Odette might come for me, and so might Innokenti and Anton—in fact, I had a pretty definite feeling that the last two would.  If I went to Krov for Christmas, would I ever be allowed to leave again?  Would I even survive whatever Innokenti and his fellow vampires had planned?

            "GM, do we have to go to Russia for Christmas?" I asked uncomfortably.

            GM's face fell.  "I am forgetting how hard that trip was for you, aren't I?  Not only did you lose your cousin, but you were kidnapped by that madman who used to be your teacher.  And then you were in the hospital.  I am sorry, Solnyshko.  We do not have to go to Russia for Christmas."

            I was sorry to see how disappointed GM looked.  I could tell that she'd really had her heart set on going to Russia—but such a trip would be dangerous, and there was no way I could explain that to her.

            "I'm sorry, GM," I said.  "I just don't think I can do it."

            GM reached across the table and patted my hand.  "It is all right, Solnyshko.  I hadn't quite realized how difficult this would be for you.  We will not go."

            "Now," GM said briskly, as if she'd completely banished the topic from her mind, "I believe you said you had something to tell me, too?"

            Suddenly, I felt even worse.  First, I'd ruined GM's Christmas plans.  Now I was about to give her more bad news.

            I had developed no clever plan of attack, so I decided just to plunge ahead.

            "GM, please get too worked up over what I'm going to say."

            GM raised one silver eyebrow.  "Your tone does not inspire confidence, Solnyshko."

            "Do you remember William Sursur?" I asked.  "He got us out of the house that night when we were forced to flee to the airport.  And he got me out of the Mstislav crypt in Krov.  He also came to see us at the house in Krov right before we left."

            GM's expression grew carefully blank.  I knew that look—it was one she wore whenever I brought up a topic she didn't want to discuss.  It was as I had feared—GM did not approve of William.

            "I remember that he was very handsome," GM said.

            "He meant a lot to me, GM."

            "I also remember that he said the two of you could not be together.  After all, he lives in Russia, and you live here."

            "That's just it," I said.  "William doesn't live in Russia anymore.  He lives here."

            GM was clearly startled.  "He lives here in the United States?"

            "He lives here in Elspeth's Grove."

            GM's eyebrows rose.  "What is this that you are telling me?"

            "GM, are you angry?"

            "That boy lives here now?  He has followed you?"

            "Why don't you like him?" I asked.

            GM's voice rose.  "You cannot see him.  I don't want him in this house!"

            "GM, please!" I cried.  "He saved both our lives!"

            GM fell silent.

            "Why don't you like him?" I asked again.  "What has he done?"

            GM looked away.  "I don't know anything about him.  And he appears to be mixed up in some pretty dangerous things."

            "Things he was trying to stop," I said.

            GM looked at me.  "What exactly is it that you want me to say?"

            "Please don't be like that, GM.  William is here in Elspeth's Grove.  I like him.  And he's really helped me.  I want to see him.  And if it's okay with you, I would like William to come over here, so you can talk to him and see that he's a good person."

            GM looked down at her teacup, and she didn't say anything for a long time.  I began to hope that she was wavering.

            "There is something in what you say," she said at last.  "You are a good girl.  I suppose I can trust your judgment."

            She looked up at me again.  "I confess that I don't entirely know my own mind in this case.  Perhaps the problem is that I just don't want you getting any older."

            As I looked at GM, I felt tears stinging my eyes.  "GM, you don't have to worry that you're going to lose me.  You have to know that I will always love you.  Nothing will ever change that."

            GM stood and walked around the table to me.

            "I know, Solnyshko.  I will always love you, too.  I have been both your grandmother and your mother.  And it is sometimes hard for a mother to see her child grow up."

            I hugged her back tightly.

            GM straightened up and brushed a hand over my hair.

            "When would you like your William to come over?"

            I didn't want to rush things, but I knew the appearance of Innokenti and Anton had made it necessary for me to get William on good terms with GM as soon as possible. 

            "Is tomorrow okay?"

            GM blinked.  "Tomorrow?"

            "I know it's sudden—"

            GM waved a hand.  "It is all right, Solnyshko.  Invite him over for dinner.  I will make pasta.  Everyone likes pasta."

            "Thank you, GM.  Thanks for William and thanks about Russia."

            GM pressed a kiss to my forehead.  "Anything for you, Solnyshko."

            GM cleared away her cup and left the room.

            I was left with my full cup of tea and a sense of relief.  I was very happy that William would be able to come over tomorrow—though I realized that I didn't know if he actually ever ate anything or not.  I supposed we would think of something if he didn't.  And now that GM would allow William to be in the house, it made me feel a bit better about the fact that Innokenti and Anton were lurking out there somewhere.  I wished William had told me how he knew Anton.  Anton seemed much more dangerous than Innokenti—and Innokenti didn't seem safe.

            I stood up and poured my tea into the sink.  I had homework to do, but I wandered into the living room where I knew I would find a picture of GM and my grandfather.

            The picture I was looking for stood on a table with other pictures of family and friends—a number of them featuring me.  Some of the people were unknown to me, but the pictures of my parents and my grandparents sat side by side next to one another right in the center.  The picture of my parents was from their wedding—my mother, pale and blond like me, my father just a little darker with light brown curly hair.  Both of them were beaming, and my mother was holding a single flower.  It was curious that no one else seemed to be in attendance.

            And then there was the picture of my grandparents.

            I picked their photo up.  My grandmother had been blond when she was younger, as had my grandfather.  They looked like a perfectly normal couple—it was hard to believe that my grandfather had truly been one of the Sìdh.

            As I looked at my grandfather, I wondered what he was like.  GM believed that he had died, but Galina told me that he still lived and that he had gone back to his people.  I wondered if he knew that GM lived in another country now, and if he ever saw her—even if she didn't see him.  GM didn't speak about him very much, but I knew that she had loved him.  And she'd told me that I would have loved him too.

            I set the picture down and walked up the stairs to my room.

            I did have homework to do—if I could keep my mind on it.  I told myself to firmly to forget about GM's letters.  And I told myself not to think too much about Anton and Innokenti.  They hadn't actually threatened me directly, and I knew William would watch over the house.  Maybe he was right—maybe the presence of the two vampires in town was just a scare tactic.

            I was still just a little too wound up to get to work, so I wandered around the room, straightening things up.  As I walked past my dresser and the large mirror over it, I thought I saw something moving in the mirror—something that wasn't my own image.

            I stopped, startled, and peered into the mirror.  I saw only my own face and the room behind me.

            I told myself I hadn't actually seen anything out of the ordinary.

            I shrugged off my nerves and went to my desk, determined to finally get to work.

            As I opened my books, however, I couldn't help thinking of the mirror, and an image flashed in my mind of what I had seen.

            There had been a second image in the mirror.

            I had seen a shadow walking behind me.

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