Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Reluctant Conversation, Part Two

Outside the door to the audience chamber, Spike stood with one hand on the handle. It was harder to be fierce here, with the doors that towered over her and not knowing what was waiting on the other side. The guardsmen had frowned at the Hounds, lowering their polearms. She’d wanted to hug them goodbye, but they’d stepped well back and saluted her. Totenberg nodded once, briskly, as his hand dropped back to his side.

The throne of bones was empty. That could be a good sign, that maybe she’d beaten him here somehow. Or it could be bad, that he’d become impatient with waiting for her and was now pacing the room. She closed the door behind her with a hollow thud.

When she turned around, he was waiting for her there in the gloom. A tall, lean man, dressed all in tightly fitted black from his doublet to hose and boots, with a sleeveless robe trimmed in bearskin that glinted with silver. His head was shaved. He was a man of all or nothing; no half-measures. When his hair had begun to fade and fall, he has simply gotten rid of it all. Even though he was her father, he was mostly a stranger to Spike, like a dour god.

He looked down at Spike with eyes as hard and grey as February. "Nikolevnischka von Schaedelthron," he started, and Spike winced. It was never good when they used your full name. His voice was soft and his cadence slow, like water dripping from an icicle.

"Atyets--Papa! I can explain . . ." She trailed off as he shook his head.

"I'm sure you can. And I'm sure it's a good explanation, and it wasn't your fault." She nodded, mouth dry. "But there comes a time when explanations must end." He held up a slender, pointed hand to stop her from going on in the pause. "And that time, Nischka, is now."

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Reluctant Conversation, Part One

She walked down the halls and through the corridors flanked by her batmen -- Dmitri to the left, Sascha to the right, and Totenberg behind her. Always, always this arrangement when they walk together so Sascha could keep his blind side to Spike. She could see the melted flesh where it twisted around the silver, mostly hidden by the eyepatch. Hounds were notoriously difficult to kill, so much so that outsiders—those not of the family -- mistook them for werewolves or demons. Sascha had been captured once, years before she was born—before Great-Grandfather was born—and after taking his left eye, they had cauterized the wound with molten silver. It hadn’t worked. Sascha was still walking the earth, and the dagger in his boot had handles of yellowed bone, smooth and cool.

She didn't really see the corridors and the doorways as they walked past. Her mind was utterly consumed by thoughts of the upcoming meeting with her father. Would the headsman be waiting there in the audience chamber, to take her back up the stairs to Nyebaveeshka, the great tower set with the sky? Where she'd be interred in one of the open cells, with three walls and no ceiling, open to the elements on two sides, with a sheer drop across from a barred door. Where she'd have the choice of flying lessons or waiting on her father's pleasure.

When they reached the third floor, Spike glanced out over the balustrade into the small conservatory. The glass ceiling was misty with warmth and humidity from the hot springs. It would smell of roses and summer—it was always summer in there. The glass inner doors were closed to keep the heat in. She stopped for a moment near them, started to reach for the handle.

Sascha stopped her. “No,” was all he said.

“Just for a moment.”

“No. Your atyets, he expect us.”


Sascha cocked his head, looking down at her, the silver in his scars winking in the torchlight. "Need to be carried?" They'd done that before, when she was younger and had done something or another to make trouble. Trouble had a way of finding her, no matter how well she tried to hide from it.

"No, but--wait a minute!" Sascha was reaching for her, but he stopped and listened. "Please. Just one minute. Atyets can wait just one minute for us." Her eyes itched with tears, but she swallowed hard to keep them down. "I may never see the gardens again."

Sascha tilted his head towards his captain, standing behind their charge. One minute?

Totenberg frowned, then shrugged. "One minute." He'd take whatever fall came.

Sascha held the door for Spike. "Go--and breathe deep."

She did, head swimming with the perfumes. A hummingbird had found its way inside the gardens at some point that summer, and it flew about her head, scolding, an indignant jewel. She watched it flashing in emerald and ruby as it wheeled around, dive-bombing her. So little and fierce. She squared her shoulders. I can be fierce, too.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Note Passed, Part Three

He’d saved lives that day, starting with his little mistress. They’d only lost one professor (but he was gone before I even entered the room. He was gone seconds after he traced the lines of the diagram Spike drew, gone even as he started to ask what this was. Turned into a living doorway for a gibbering squamous mass with rolling eyes and gaping maw. One professor, and the student next to him.)

Aloud, he said, "There are other schools. Maybe Beauxbatons--"

Spike sneered. "Charms, Transfiguration, and Hairdressing. I'll blend into that batch of mirror-dazzled half-Veela about as well as black pepper in a cream sauce."

"Not so bad." His accent had thickened since returning home, back to its half-drawling growl. Vowels drawn out and bent sideways, consonants like stones dropped down a well. No one else talked like that, no one but the Hounds. She'd wondered before if it was a result of their physiology, or if it was a matter of tribal identity. They had little else in common, those created monsters of her father's private army. "Power come from more than one source."

Spike sighed. He had a point. She hated it when he had a point. That point always seemed to be attached to the petard she was hoist upon. "And Hogwarts. Home to the Boys Who Were Over-Rated and the Girls Who Were Wallpaper."

He snorted derision at that. "Not so bad, I tell you." Hydellhyu, like the sound the wind made around the spires in the early spring. "Other schools, they founded by one witch or wizard, they focus on one thing. Monomaniacal, one could say. Hogwarts founded by four, who joined as a team. Reinforce each other's weaknesses, see different values. Diversity, yah?"

"I guess . . ." But did she really want to go to Hogwarts--assuming she was accepted, that was. There was always the Americas, much newer, much less well-known, making its name based on a heavily Muggle-influenced branch of magics. They use clockwork and steam there, she marveled, recalling what she had heard about the Iveagh League. Clockwork gears and boilers and fire and water harnessed to the will of the witch or wizard. There was diversity, calling on elementals to do your bidding.

But, on the other hand, so far away. It was a long flight from America by broom, and she wouldn't be able to Apparate for some time yet. Maybe she could take Muggle transportation--could one drive from America? Is a car waterproof? She would have to look that up. She started to go to the bookshelf to do some research, and then remembered for the hundredth time that day that she had no books. No philosophical engine, no connection at all to the world beyond her bedroom door.

"Would you ask Dmitri--" and then someone was clapping softly for entrance. Spike felt the pit of her stomach freeze over at the sound. The headsman. Had to be. She had been the heir, and had suddenly been demoted to the spare. No sense in keeping her around. Her hands were numb again, she felt the tingling in her lower back, adrenaline bee stings as she leaped to her feet, whirling and diving for cover under the bed. Totenberg was fast, but by the grace of the good Bear she was faster. His claws caught and ripped the leg of her pants just over her boot as he grabbed, but she was under the bed on her belly and scrabbling into a tight ball at the headboard by the time he caught back up to her.

"Vat de--"

"Headsman." She was panting, unable to catch her breath, shaking. "Atyets's sent the headsman for me and--" She couldn't finish. The block will be cold, this time of year, she thought, cold and frosted over like the boards of the stage. Or will Atyets have them use a sword instead, for a quicker, cleaner end? Will he convene the village as a public lesson, or keep it a private, family matter?

Totenberg arose from his crouch at the foot. "Don't be silly. Headsman wouldn't clap--he'd just order Dmitri and Sascha out of his way and come for you."

"And you'd--"

"I'd do what I had to do," he replied over his shoulder as he swung the door open. She could see Dmitri's boots in the corridor, and high up near the lintel, a slice of Sascha's red-gold hair. She couldn't hear what the one Hound said to the other, but Totenberg was nodding and coming back for her, all too soon, leaving the door ajar.

"Is time, little mistress. You papa, he say come now."

Sunday, February 05, 2012

A Note Passed, Part Two

Her monstrous bodyguard, seven feet of lean muscle, pointed ears and sharp white teeth. He pulled his black and silver hair back in a braid that fell almost to his boot tops when it dangled free, pooled on the floor as he crouched beside her there by the fire. The light glinted off the sleek dark fur covering his face, long limbs coiled under him as he squatted. Longer fur peeked out from under the cuffs at his wrists. He looked like one of Atyets’s mastiffs given the ability to stand upright and the power of speech. Legs sleekly muscled, spatulate palms with long claw-tipped fingers. The better to chase you with, my dear, the better to catch you with.

Spike sighed. “It’s just not fair,” she mumbled. It was becoming her mantra, it seemed. He made some noise of encouragement, and she went on.

“It’s not fair. Worse than that happened, and they weren’t kicked out—“

“Was students to students. Survival of the fittest.”

“But still! It wasn't my fault." She looked up at him now. How could she tell it in a way that he'd understand, would intercede with Atyets on her behalf. "I'd had an Idea in Arithmancy, one of those that I get sometimes--"

He knew about his mistress's Ideas; they all did. Often diving for cover when she started with the quill and parchment, scribbling away, fire in her eyes and ink in her hair. They'd taken turns spoon feeding her while she was in the middle of inspiration, keeping a careful watch over her, waiting for the moment when it was wiser to take the implements of creation out of her hands and quickly distract her. They'd gone through most of the barracks card games by now, time to teach her Arimaa.

And he'd missed this one. Minions weren't allowed in classes. He'd had a quiet word with the headmaster, explaining that Spike wasn't quite like the other students; that her talents were . . . a little wild sometimes. His eyes flicked to the tapestry that covered the north wall and the scars still in the stone from that incident what Spike was two and just getting a handle on speech. She'd gotten frustrated, grabbed a length of wood, swish and flick, and--sometimes he could still hear the voices humming and whispering, muffled only slightly by the tapestry.

For his efforts, all Totenberg had received was a patronizing lecture on how all of Durmstrang's students were among the exceptionally gifted, of course, and that the staff had plenty of experience handling all the situations that might arise. He should go and wait in the dormitory with the other minions; everything was going to be just fine.

He wondered how the headmaster had explained--call a spade a spade--covered up the incident in Arithmancy.

"So I was writing a note -- to myself! For later! And when I was done with the diagram, I was folding it up, and suddenly he was there by my elbow, demanding I give him that piece of parchment. He was going to read it out loud to the class."

Totenberg could see it now, the vulturous Arithmancy professor, with his long neck hunched into his narrow shoulders looming up behind Spike as she sketched and labeled her Idea. How he’d looked down his nose and cawed a demand that she hand it over, this tiny new Idea that she was hammering down to explore further. How she’d have looked up, blinking and returning to the world outside her head. Corbidius would have taken that for guilt, most likely.

Then the blood on the walls and the screaming. He’d not confined himself to the dormitory, despite the headmaster’s demands, nor had he insisted that Sascha and Dmitri do the same. So after the professor had been forcibly evicted from his body by the being that he had unwittingly opened a gateway to, Totenberg had been waiting in the hallway, where he could kick the door in and go help, rather than a solid klick away, behind many sets of doors and stairs.