Sunshine, p.4
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       Sunshine, p.4

           Robin McKinley
 
Chapter 4

 

  Desperately I tried to think of anything - anything - my grandmother's ring, which was the color of these eyes. My grandmother. Sunlight is your element. But it was darkness here, darkness barely lessened by candlelight. The candlelight was only there so that my weak human eyes could be more easily drawn by mesmeric vampire eyes. But I remember light, real light, daylight, sunlight. Hey, Sunshine. I am Sunshine. Sunshine is my name. I remembered a song Charlie used to sing:

  You are my sunshine

  My only sunshine

  I heard him singing it. No, I heard me singing it. Thin, wavering, with no discernable tune. But it was my voice.

  The light in the green eyes snapped off, and I fell backward as if I'd been dropped. I turned, and scuttled for my corner. I burrowed under my blanket, and I stayed there.

  I must have slept again. Silly thing to do. Was there a sensible thing to do? Perhaps I fainted. I woke suddenly, knowing it was four a. m. , and time to go make cinnamon rolls. But this time when I woke I knew at once where I was. I was still in that ballroom, still chained to that wall.

  I was still alive.

  I was so tired.

  I sat up. It would be dawn soon. The candles had burned out while I slept, but there was dim gray light coming through the windows. I could see some pink starting on the horizon. I sighed. I didn't want to turn around and look at him. I knew he was still sitting in the middle of the wall; I knew he hadn't moved. I knew it as I knew that Bo's gang had been frightened. The blood from my split lip had stuck my mouth together and when I licked it unstuck and yawned it split again, with a sharp rip of pain that made my eyes water. Damn. I touched my breast dubiously. It was clotted and sticky. The slash had been high, where it was only skin over bone; I hadn't, after all, lost much blood, although it was a long gash, and messy. I didn't want to turn around. He had let me go, last night. He had remembered that he didn't want Bo to win. Perhaps my singing had sounded like the singing of a "rational creature. " But the sight of my blood had almost been too much for him. I didn't want to show him my front again; maybe the scab would be too much of a come-on. I sucked at my lip.

  With my back to him, wrapped in my blanket, I watched the sun rise. It was going to be another brilliant day. Good. I needed sunlight now, but I also needed as many hours as possible before sunset. How long could I afford to wait?

  Charlie would be brewing the coffee by now. The sun was bright on the water of the lake. This would have to do.

  I stood up and dropped my blanket. If the vampire had been telling the truth, I was safe from him now till sunset. I turned around and looked at the sunlight coming in the two windows I had to choose from. For no explicable reason I preferred the window nearer him. I avoided looking at him. I stepped into the block of friendly sunlight, and knelt down. I pulled my little jackknife from my bra, and held it between my two hands, fingers extended, palms together as if I was praying. I suppose I was.

  I hadn't tried to change anything in fifteen years. I'd only ever done it with my grandmother, and after she'd gone, I stopped. Perhaps I was unsettled by what I had done to her ring. Perhaps I was angry with her for leaving, even though the Wars had started and lots of people were being separated from members of their families as travel and communication became increasing erratic and in some areas broke down completely. The postcards from my father stopped during the Wars. But I knew my gran loved me, knew that she wouldn't have left me again if she hadn't had to. I still stopped trying to do the things she taught me.

  It was as if our time by the lake was a different life. My life away from the lake, away from my gran, was the life my mother had chosen for me, in which my father's heritage did not exist. Although I went to school with several kids from important magic-handling families, and some of them liked to show off what they could do, I was never really tempted. I oohed and aahed with the ordinary kids; and my last name, Charlie's last name, gave nothing away.

  By the time the Wars ended, I was a teenager, and perhaps I'd convinced myself that the games by the lake with my gran had only been children's games, and if I remembered anything else I was dreaming. (Or the hypes or trippers I'd had had been unusually good. ) It's not as though my gran ever came back and reminded me otherwise.

  But my gran was right about my heritage not going away because everyone was pretending it didn't exist. I hadn't been near that place, that somewhere inside me, for fifteen years, but when I went back there that morning, kneeling in the sunshine, it wasn't just there, it had changed. Grown. It was as if what my gran had done - what we had done together - was plant a sapling. It didn't matter to the sapling that we'd then gone away and left it. It went on with becoming a tree. My heritage was the soil it had grown in.

  But I had never done anything this difficult, and I hadn't done anything at all in fifteen years. Did you really never forget how to ride a bicycle? If you could ride a bicycle, could you ride a super-mega-thor-turbo-charged several million something-or-other motorcycle, the kind you can hear from six blocks away that you'd have to stand on tiptoe to straddle, the first time you tried?

  I felt the power gathering below the nape of my neck, between my shoulder blades. That place on my back burned, as if the sunlight I knelt in was too strong. There was an unpleasant sense of pressure building, like the worst case of heartburn you can imagine, and then it exploded, and shot down my arms in fiery threads, and there was an almost audible clunk. Or maybe it was audible. I opened my hands. My arms felt as weak as if I'd lifted a boulder. There was a key lying in my right palm.

  "You're a magic handler - a transmuter," said the vampire in that strange voice I no longer always found expressionless. I heard him being surprised.

  "Not much of one," I said. "A small stuff-changer only. " The kids from the magic-handling families taught the rest of us some of the slang. Calling a transmuter a stuff-changer was pretty insulting. Almost as bad as calling a sorcerer a charm-twister. "I thought you couldn't look at me in sunlight. "

  "The sound and smell of magic were too strong to ignore, and your body is shading your hands," he said.

  I extended the foot with the shackle on it. This was the real moment. My heart was beating as if. . . there was a vampire in the room. Ha ha ha. My hand was shaking badly, but I found the odd little keyhole, fumbled my new key in it, and turned it.

  Click.

  "Well done," he whispered.

  I looked out the window. It was maybe seven o'clock. I had about twelve hours. I was already exhausted, but I would be running for my life. How far could adrenaline get me? I had a vague but practical idea where I was; the lake itself was a great orienter. All I had to do was keep it on my right, and I would come to where I'd left my car eventually. . . probably twenty miles, if I remembered the shape of the shore correctly. If I stayed close to the lake I could avoid the bad spot behind the house, and I would have to hope there weren't any other bad spots between me and my car that I couldn't get around. Would I be able to change my shackle key into a car key? I doubted the vampires would have folded up my discarded clothing with the key in the jeans pocket and left it for me on the driver's seat.

  Surely I could do twenty-odd miles in twelve hours, even after the two nights and a day I'd just had.

  I turned to the vampire. I looked at him for the first time that day. For the first time since I'd bled on him. He had shut his eyes again. I stepped out of the sunlight and his eyes opened. I stepped toward him, knelt down beside him. I felt his eyes drop to my bloody breast. My blood on his chest had crusted; he hadn't tried to wipe it off. Or lick it up.

  "Give me your ankle," I said.

  There was a long pause.

  "Why?" he said at last.

  "I don't like bullies," I said. "Honor among thieves. Take your pick. "

  He shook his head, slowly. "It is - " There was an even longer pause. "It is a kind thought. " I wondered what depths he'd had to plumb to come up with the word k
ind. "But it is no use. Bo's folk encircle this place. The size of the clear area around this house is precisely the size of the area Bo thinks can be kept close-guarded. He will not be wrong about this. You will be able to pass that ring now, in daylight, while all sane vampires are shielded and in repose, but the moment I can move out of this place, so will my guards be moving. "

  And you aren't, of course, at your best and brightest, I added silently.

  I stood up and stepped back into the sunlight and felt it on my skin, and thought about the big tree where a tiny sapling used to be. There are a lot of trees and tree symbolism in the magic done to ward or contain the Others, because trees are impervious to dark magic. And then I thought about traps, and trapped things, and about when the evil of the dark was clearly evil, and when it was not quite so clearly evil.

  There was a very long pause, while I felt the sunlight soaking through my skin, soaking into the tree that up till a few minutes ago I hadn't known was there, felt the leaves of my tree unfurl, stretch like tiny hands, to take it in. I was tired, I was scared, I was stupefied, I'd just done an important piece of magic, I was tranced out. I thought I heard a wind in the leaves of my tree, and the wind had a voice, and it said yesssssssssss.

  "Then you'll have to come with me," I said.

  There was another silence, but when he spoke his voice struck at me as if it might itself draw blood. "Do not torment me," he said. "As I have been merciful to you - as merciful as I can be - do not tease me now. Go and live. Go. "

  I looked down at him. He was not looking at me, but then I was standing in the sunlight again. I stepped out of the sunlight but he still did not look at me. "I'm sorry," I said. "I am not teasing you. If you will not let me try the shackle on your ankle, give me your hand instead. " I held my hand out - down - toward him, still sitting cross-legged on the floor.

  More priceless sunlit moments passed.

  "Would you rather die - er - whatever - like a rat in a trap?" I said, more harshly than I meant. "I haven't noticed you getting any better offers. "

  I didn't see him move, of course. He was just standing there, standing beside me, his hand in my hand. It was the first time I had seen him standing. His hand felt as inhuman as the rest of him looked: the right shape and everything, but all wrong. Wrong in some fathomless, indefinable, turning-the-world-on-its-end way. Also there was the smell. Standing beside him it was almost overwhelming. Mind you, he smelled a lot better than I did, I needed a bath like you don't want to imagine - there isn't much that stinks worse than fear - but he didn't smell human. He didn't smell animal or vegetable or mineral. He smelled vampire.

  I took a deep breath anyway. Then I stepped back into the sunlight, still holding his hand, drawing it after me. His arm unbent and let me do it.

  The sunlight struck his hand, halfway up the wealed forearm. Some subtle change occurred - subtle but profound. The feeling of his hand in mine was no longer a - a threat to everything that made me human. The hand became a - an undertaking, an enterprise, a piece of work. Maybe not that much different from flour and water and yeast and a rapidly approaching deadline of hungry, focused customers.

  I felt the power moving through me. It did not come in fiery threads this time, but in slow, fat, curly ripples. The ripples made me feel a little peculiar, as if there was an actual thing, or things, moving around in my insides, shouldering my liver and stomach aside, twisting among my bowels. I tried to relax and let the ripples wiggle and squirm as they wished. I had to know if I could do this, do what I was offering to do, for a long time. Possibly till sunset. Possibly twelve hours or more. Could I bear this invasion that long, even though I was inviting it? What if I overestimated my strength, like a diver overestimating how long she could hold her breath?

  I was demented. The most impressive thing I had ever done before today was turn a very pretty ring into an ugly botch. And I would have this vampire's. . . er. . . life totally in my hands.

  I was trying to save the life of a vampire.

  The ripples spread through me, first balancing themselves cautiously like kids standing on a teeter-totter, then slowly, gently, finding spaces where they could settle themselves down on various bits of my inner anatomy, like the last customers during the early breakfast rush finding the last available seats. Most of me was already full of things like heart and spleen and kidneys, but there were gaps where the power could fit itself in, attach itself to its surroundings. Tap into me. I felt very. . . full. As the connections were made - as the power made itself at home - the ripples began to change. Now they felt like the straps of a harness being settled in place, buckles let out a little here, taken in a little there. When they were done, it felt like a good fit.

  I thought I could do it.

  I sighed. I could no longer see my tree, because I had become it, embodied it, it grew in me, its sap my blood, its branches my limbs. The power wrapped round it like ropes and cables, flew from its boughs like banners and streamers. Perhaps the next time there was wind in my hair, it would rustle like leaves. Yessssssss. I held out my right hand, and he put his left hand into it. I drew him - all the rest of him - into the bright rectangle in front of the window.

  Vampire skin looks like hell in sunlight, by the way. Maybe bursting into flames is to be preferred.

  Anyway.

  I felt my harness take its load. The pull was steady and even, the weight heavy but bearable. I hoped. "Okay," I said. "Back up again. I want both hands free to get that shackle off, and - um - we'll need to stay in contact while we - um - do this sunlight thing. "

  I didn't know vampires were ever clumsy. I thought grace came with the territory, like fangs and a complexion that looks really bad in daylight. They're always oilily supple in the books. But he staggered back into the shadow, leaned against the wall with a thump, dropped my hands, dropped his own hands to thud against the wall next to him. "What in creation are you?" he said. "That is no small stuff-changer trick. It is not possible. It is not possible. I have been standing in sunlight and I know it is not possible. "

  It was nice to know I wasn't the only one of us feeling demented. I knelt to get at his shackle. I was relieved when the key worked for his cuff too; I guessed I was going to have to be pretty careful of my strength to be a successful sun-parasol for the undead for the next twelve hours. I was not thinking about any more of the implications of my offer than I had to. The main thing - the only thing - was: I couldn't leave him behind. I didn't care who or what he was. I couldn't walk out of this cage and leave some caged thing behind me. If I could help it. And, for better or worse, I could. Apparently.

  The skin of his ankle looked terrible. I couldn't tell if the. . . peeling. . . was anything more than just chafing. I was careful not to touch it. My ankle didn't seem any the worse for wear, but there hadn't been any antihuman wards on my shackle that I'd noticed. Oh yes: they exist. They're not a lot talked about among humans, but they exist.

  "What are you? Who are you?" he repeated. "What family are you from?"

  I broke the cuff open. "My name is Rae Seddon, but what you're looking for is Raven Blaise. Seddon is Charlie's name - my stepfather's name - but my mother stopped me using Raven or Blaise as soon as we left my dad. "

  "You're a Blaise," he said, still leaning against the wall, but staring down at me as I knelt at his feet. "Which Blaise?"

  "My father is Onyx Blaise," I said.

  "Onyx Blaise had no children," barked the vampire.

  "Had?" I said, just as sharply. "Do you know he is dead?"

  The vampire shook his head, impatiently, but then went on shaking it again and again, as if bothered by gnats. Gnats might like vampires: they go for blood. But I didn't think that was the problem here. "I don't know. I don't know. He disappeared - "

  "Fifteen years ago," I said.

  The vampire looked at me. "Onyx Blaise had - has - no children. "

  How do you know? I wanted to say. Is my dad another of
your old enemies? Or. . . your old friends? No. No. I hadn't seen him since I was six, but I couldn't believe that of my gran's son. "He has at least one," I said.

  The vampire slid slowly down the wall to sit on the floor next to me. He started to laugh. Vampires don't laugh very well, or at least this one didn't. He half looked - sounded - like something out of a bad horror film - the sort of horror film that isn't scary because you don't believe it, it's so crude, where was their special effects budget? - and half didn't. The second half was like the worst horror film you'd ever seen, the one that made you think about things you'd never imagined, the one that scared you so much you threw up. This was worse than the goblin giggler, my second guard, from Bo's gang. I clamped my hands around the empty shackle and waited for him to stop.

  "A Blaise," he said. "Bo's lot brought me a Blaise. And not just a third cousin who can do card tricks and maybe write a ward sign that almost works, but Onyx Blaise's daughter. " He stopped laughing. Then I decided maybe silence was worse after all, at least when it followed that laughter.

  "Your father didn't educate you very well. If I had killed you and had your blood, the blood of Onyx Blaise's daughter, the blood of someone who can do what you just did, I could have snapped that shackle as if the steel were paper and the marks on it no more than a - a recipe for cinnamon rolls, and taken the odds against me with Bo's gang, even after the weeks I've been here, even against all the others you haven't seen, silent in the woods, watching. And I would have won. That's what the blood of someone from one of the families can do, and a Blaise. . . The effect doesn't last - a week at the most - but a lot can be done in a few nights. " He sounded almost dreamy. "On Onyx Blaise's daughter's blood I could get rid of Bo for good. I still could. All I would have to do is keep you here one more day, and wait till sunset. I'm weak and sick and I see double in this damned daylight, but I'm still stronger than a human. All I would have to do is keep you here. . . " His voice trailed off.

  I didn't move. There was a small wispy thought in the back of my mind. It seemed to be something like: oh, well. A little closer to consciousness there was a slightly more definite thought, and it said, well, we've been here before, several times, in the last couple of days. We're either going to lose for good now, or we aren't.

  I sat very still, as if I were trying to discourage a cobra from striking.

  More minutes of sunlight streamed past us toward nightfall.

  At last he said: "But I am not going to. I suppose I am not going to for some reason similar to whatever insane reason has made you decide to free me and take me with you. What happens when your power comes to its end, in five minutes or five hours? Well, I know that the fire is swift. "

  I moved. Slowly. Distracted, in spite of everything, by that I know. Not I believe or I guess but I know. Something else not to think about. I continued to move very slowly. Took my hands off the empty shackle. Slid the key into my bra again. It could stay a shackle key for now.

  I was not, perhaps, fully convinced that the cobra had lowered its hood. I felt his eyes on me again.

  "I did warn you that names have power," he said. "Even human names, although this was not what I was thinking of when I said it. "

  "I'll remember not to tell any vampires my father's name in the future," I said. I glanced out the window. We'd lost about half an hour since I'd made the key. I shivered. My glance fell on my corner; the sack looked plumper than it had when I last looked - before Bo's gang had come the second time. More supplies, presumably. I would need feeding to get me through this day, although I didn't at all feel like eating now, and neither of us had pockets to carry anything in. I went over to the sack and picked it up. Another loaf of bread, another bottle of water, and something heavy in a plastic bag. I pulled the heavy thing out. . . heavy and squishy. A big lump of red, bleeding meat.

  I gave a squeak and dropped it on the floor, where it obligingly went splat.

  The vampire said, "It is beast. Cow. Beef. I believe they have forgotten to cook it for you. "

  "I don't like cooked meat either," I said, backing away from it. "I - I - no thanks. Er - would it do you any good?"

  Another of his pauses. "Yes," he said.

  "It's all yours," I said. "I'll stick to bread. "

  I saw him, this time. Did he mean for me to be able to see him, was it hard for him to move in daylight even early in the morning and in shade, or was he merely luxuriating in being free from the chain? Or had he moved so little in the last. . . however many days and nights that even he felt a little stiff? He walked as slowly as a weary human might walk around the big rectangle of light on the floor, around it to my corner, although he still walked with a sinuousness no human had. He bent and picked up the drippy parcel. I thought, is he going to suck it dry or what?

  I didn't see. It was like when he drank water. One moment there was water, the next moment there was not. One moment there was a big piece of bloody meat in a white plastic bag, and the next moment the white plastic bag, ripped open, was drifting toward the floor, and the meat had disappeared. Vampires sometimes like their blood with a few solids, I guess. Maybe it was like having rice with your curry or pasta with your sauce.

  I decided against trying to tie the sack round me somehow, and ate most of the new loaf instead, although it tasted like dust and ashes, not wholly because it was more store bread. (I spared a brief thought about how vampires might go shopping for human groceries. Groceries for humans, that is. ) Then I picked up the water bottle. It would come with us.

  We had to get going.

  We were leaving. We were on our way. We were going now. And I was scared out of my mind. What had I let myself in for? The mere thought of remaining in constant physical contact with a vampire was abhorrent, and he was right, what about when whatever-it-was ran out? But I couldn't force him to come with me. He had decided it was worth the risk. So how fast was the fire, anyway? Supposing it came to that. I didn't need an answer to that: not fast enough. Nothing like as fast as a nice clean beheading.

  And if you're touching a vampire when he catches fire. . .

  Okay, okay, wait, said a little voice in my head. How did you get here? You got here by making the best of a whole Carthaginian hell of a series of bad choices. And remember he doesn't feel horrible when you're doing your sun-parasol trick. He feels more like. . . helping Charlie do the books when Mom's sick. Or dealing with Mr. Cagney.

  Mr. Cagney was one of our regulars at the coffeehouse, and he was convinced that the rest of the world existed to give him a bad time. He was the only one of our regulars who couldn't manage to say anything nice about my cinnamon rolls. That didn't stop him from eating them, however, and listening to him complain on a day he had arrived too late and they were sold out had resulted in our always having one set aside for him. Dealing with Mr. Cagney was an effort. A big, tiring, thankless effort. On the whole I thought I preferred the vampire.

  He was watching me. "You can change your mind. " Then he said something that sounded almost human for the first time: "I half wish you would. "

  I shook my head mournfully. "No. I can't. "

  "Then there is one more thing," he said.

  I was beginning to learn that I probably wouldn't like anything he said after one of his pauses. I waited.

  "You will have to let me carry you till we are well away from here. "

  "What?"

 

 

 
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