Girard The Guardian by Ann Christy – Watercolor on CP #140

 

Girard The Guardian – A True Vampire Novel

One

Girard stepped into the foyer of the great house, his footfalls silent even in this echoing chamber. He’d had more than seven hundred years to learn the art of silence. Being loud at his age would be an unforgivable breach of manners. If there was one thing most vampires prized, it was silence. Ages of noise had made the oldest of them exquisitely sensitive. Sounds as slight as the shuffle of shoe leather against the softest carpet could feel like sandpaper against eardrums.

“You know why I’m here,” he said quietly, removing his hat. When the woman who answered the door made no move to take it, he dropped it onto a small, ornate table that seemed far too elegant for something as simple as his well-worn hat. But, he wanted to keep his hands free.

Just in case. Some vampires were not fans of the Guardians.

She didn’t move other than to follow his movements with her eyes. No tension or interest enlivened her features, her hand remaining on the doorknob as if she had nothing better to do than hold it open all day. If not for the youthful color in her face, she could have been a statue. Long boned and elegant, she held her head high. Something about the posture—that long necked stance and slightly curved wrist—spoke dancer to him. But not a modern dancer.

Well, modern was relative, wasn’t it?

“May I?” he asked.

She winced a little at the slight echo, the movement so small that a human might miss it.

After an uncomfortably long pause, the woman lowered her chin ever so slightly in acknowledgement, if not invitation. The movement served to reinforce the impression of a performer accustomed to being judged for her grace. Her eyes were large, fringed with pale lashes so long and thick that Girard had the strange urge to ask her if they tangled. Even with all that beauty, Girard could tell the body she wore was one she’d possessed for a good, long while. Tiny laugh lines radiated from the corners of her eyes and her facial bones were just a little closer to the surface than they would be in a young body. He wondered what had happened to the original owner of that dancer’s body.

“This way, Guardian,” she said, her voice almost a whisper. Her motion of invitation was barely there, but as smooth as liquid. It was as though her arms weren’t constrained by joints or anything as unbending as bone.

She shut the door carefully, then preceded him across the space. Like his, her steps were almost silent, even in high heels. Girard tilted his head to enjoy the sight of her slender calves.

If the atrium was stark and bare, then the room they entered next was almost disorienting in its blankness. White marble covered the floors and walls, the room’s only color in the hints of grey veined throughout the smooth stone. Even the ceiling was a blank expanse of white, the paling frescos of the atrium absent here.

The room’s size reinforced the notion of nothingness. As big as a church—the old kind of his youth—it was more than a simple space. This was proof that the home belonged to an old one—at least as old as Girard anyway. If he had owned something as personal as a house, it would be less ostentatious, but no less sound-sensitive. This sort of carefully planned abode was the way vampires reached an advanced age, or at least it had been before the modern era made everyone anonymous. Somewhere amongst this maze of echoing chambers he would find a small, tight space safe for sleeping. Even with centuries of training and his natural ability to move with stealth, he would be heard long before he reached the place where the old one slept. Alarm systems were useless against a vampire, but a few big rooms would thwart anyone who entered with bad intentions. Including vampires.

“Wait here,” the woman murmured as she walked away.

Once she was gone, Girard closed his eyes and listened to the sounds of the house. Doing so was as automatic for him as breathing—another myth that didn’t reflect the reality of vampires. Of course they breathed, they lived in human bodies. He stilled himself to catch every sound. Every house, every building, and every spot in the world had its own unique voice. Listening was important, particularly if a Guardian like Girard wanted to have a long career. Certain noises, or the absence of any noise at all, usually hinted at danger long before it became obvious.

Tilting his head in the direction of a faint sound, he finally caught something. Somewhere there was a sigh, the tink of ice against glass, the slide of skin over fabric. At last, he caught the soft sound of bare feet over tile. He opened his eyes as a white door at the other end of the room opened.

She looked no more than twelve years old from a distance, all gangly limbs and a head just a touch too big for her body. A girl in the weeks before she transformed into an adolescent and then suddenly, a young woman. The illusion was perfect until Girard saw her eyes. They were old and far, far too bright for a mere human. He caught the shine like a sky full of stars in those eyes before her mask of humanity fell back into place.

Astynomia, even here,” she whispered as she approached, her disgust evident. Given the way her face screwed up, Girard wouldn’t have been surprised if she spat upon the floor. Clearly, this vampire was not a fan of vampire law enforcement. Some weren’t. He didn’t take it personally.

An old word, Astynomia, though in use even today for the state police of Greece. It was possible the vampire inside the child was simply of Greek origin, but the pronunciation said something different to his ears. She spoke the word in the old way, the way he’d heard it spoken by the eldest of his kind when he was small. Even in the most ancient and inflexible languages, pronunciation changed over time.

She circled to the side a little as she neared, a tightening circle that also spoke of age. That sort of movement came only from centuries of wariness around others.

This child was most certainly an old one. An unexpected twist.

“Even here,” he confirmed and gave her a cordial smile. “We are called Guardians now and have been for a long time.”

Her bare foot made a little, unnecessary slap against the marble, then she tilted her head down and to the side, looking up at him from under a fringe of dark eyelashes. The flash of irritation on her sweet face brought the stars back, her eyes shining with a thousand points of silver light before fading back to their natural sky blue.

“I meant no offense,” he said, lowering his head in a gesture that might pass for a cursory bow. “My name is Girard.”

She stopped suddenly, one foot still poised to finish a step. Her toes lowered slowly as she rotated to face him, her head cocking to examine him as if he were a curious creature never encountered before. The way she moved was eerie, too fluid to pass for human and too animal to pass for a mere vampire. That strangeness made the hairs on Girard’s arms rise. What was this girl? Some feral vampire raised in the wilderness, maybe.

“And your people?” she asked in her child’s voice.

He twitched up an eyebrow at that. No one cared about these things anymore. That their kind existed was enough. Too many had been lost as the world grew connected. Petty things like bloodlines were ridiculous and outdated notions. If she cared about that sort of thing, then she definitely wasn’t feral.

“Frankish, more or less.”

He used the term loosely. Names of places changed so often that they became almost meaningless given enough time. The truth was far more precise and to him, those names and faces—that entire, long ago life—was embedded in his memory. He considered himself French, but borders were changeable things in the world of humans. And the body he wore spoke with an American accent, so his birthplace wouldn’t be obvious to anyone.

The girl shrugged, an entirely modern gesture that made her look like she was about to argue over the size of her allowance. His origins weren’t necessarily noble in the way an old one might look at it, but they weren’t humble by any means. She wasn’t impressed, which meant she was closer to the source than he. Or perhaps she was so old that even the label of Frankish meant nothing to her.

This second possibility interested him greatly.

“May I know your name?” he asked, sticking with polite semi-deference. As a Guardian, he was immune to attack…in theory.

The stars in her eyes returned, but this time from amusement. “You may call me Christina.”

“I see.”

Not supplying the name she received at her birth—or maybe his birth, because really, who knew with a vampire—was a slight. It was an even greater slight when in conversation with a Guardian. Of all the rules they lived by, and there were many, the rule of giving truth to a Guardian was one that had never changed.

Then again, she might not remember her original name. That also happened with the old ones, but only the ones that were crazy.

That she gave him the name of a child he was here to talk about was a challenge to his authority. Of course, she was also wearing that child’s face and body, so it was hardly something she could keep secret.

“I’m here at the order of the Council. A situation in a small town in the middle of nowhere has led my investigation here. To you. You already know that, though, don’t you?”

Christina continued her slow circling and Girard rotated to keep her front and center. Her rosy lips slid up in a sideways smile, her expression going sly and naughty. They had played this circling game of hers for two rotations now and he wondered what her goal was. Disorient him? Allow someone to approach silently?

That thought was interrupted by another voice, another woman, though a much older one. The voice had roughened some with many years of use, but was still soft and well-controlled. “You’ll have to excuse my mother, Guardian. She is newly awakened after a long rest.”

Girard backed up two quick steps. The motion would have been too fast for most humans to follow, but he had been in this body for over sixty years and it fit as if he had been born to it.

The two vampires bracketed him, one to either side, but neither of them gave any indication of threat. Well, nothing other than sneaking in and being creepy. At least the girl had stopped her circling.

Girard moved his suit jacket out of the way of his weapon, the glint of metal out of place in the mausoleum-like room. The scent of rosemary and the sulfur tang of ripe marshlands wafted out. Girard had grown used to it over the years, but it made the girl wrinkle her nose.

The older woman held her hands out to her sides. “That’s not necessary, Guardian. I assure you, we intend no harm.” Her eyes flashed silver as she glanced at the girl. Clearly, she meant the words for her as much as for him.

The girl only laughed, a breathy sound that echoed painfully in the space. She clasped her hands together in delight, almost as if she’d never seen anything like the tableau in front of her. Given the many points of light in her eyes, she was far too old for this situation to be new. Something was off with her and Girard’s nerves jangled. He hated when vampires in trouble were unpredictable.

“I think I’d feel more comfortable if you two stood still…and stayed in front of me.” Keeping them both in his peripheral vision was making his head hurt and the pale clothing they wore blended in with the general paleness of the room. They were almost mirror images of each other in some ways. One young, one very old. The older woman’s dress was long and loose, but clearly well-tailored to look effortless without actually being shapeless. The pale expanse of linen was only broken by a necklace of gleaming blue stones, probably lapis lazuli and also probably very old. The girl was also wearing a linen dress, but hers was tucked up into loose folds held in place by a golden belt, as if she were still following fashion as it was in ancient times.

“Mother,” the older woman said, her tone almost impatient. She walked toward the center of the room, angling away from Girard so that she wasn’t coming straight at him. Her steps were purposefully loud, meant to advertise her location. The gleaming spots in her irises were almost as numerous as those of the girl, which meant both of them were quite old.

The girl rolled her eyes in a very human way and met the woman in the center of the room. The sloped shoulders made her appear no different than any modern tween being scolded. Their positions gave him maybe thirty feet of space to use if they made a move. It wasn’t enough, but he was a Guardian and in his prime. Both of them were at other points in the spectrum. The girl was clearly still getting used to a new body, and a small body on top of that. The other woman’s body must have well over a hundred years of use and was long past the point where she should have shifted to a new one. The body had probably been older even when she took it based on the sun damage that marred her cheeks. That was an uncommon choice and she walked with the stiffness of age.

The process of aging was much slower once a vampire took a body, but it didn’t stop. Nothing could stop it entirely. The human form had its limitations and nothing was perfect. Hosting a vampire extended human life, but immortality was for realms of fiction. Staying in an old body was a very risky proposition for a vampire and this woman had left old age behind a long time ago.

Christina’s eyes narrowed as the woman took her hand and held it tight. It was clear the old woman was as unsure as Girard when it came to the girl’s next actions. The tight grip and strained expression gave her uncertainty away. Impaired thinking and rash behavior were a temporary side effect of a new body, particularly if the vampire had spent a considerable time hibernating. The taking of a body produced an intense euphoria that lingered sometimes for years, though at a much decreased level once the initial rush was over. Such pleasure could interfere with good judgement after a long spell of pain, followed by the eventual numbness that descended if a vampire rested too long. Not to mention that every memory the human held became dominant, their interests, their passions, their fears…all of it combined to overwhelm the vampire inside.

But then again, sometimes the old ones were simply crazy. Like the ones who didn’t remember their names.

“My name is Yadikira. This is my mother, Thalia. I welcome you, Girard the Guardian. May I ask what you seek from us?” The older woman spoke formally, the way vampires spoke when faced with something that made them uneasy.

Weakness couldn’t be tolerated in their species, so they substituted running like hell with talking politely. It worked. Mostly.

Even after all these centuries, he felt bad when situations like this came up. They didn’t come up often, but when they did, it rarely ended well. These vampires were old ones. Girard could see it plainly by the number of silvery spots reflected in her eyes. Yadikira might be Thalia’s daughter, but she was certainly old enough to know how things would play out if he wasn’t satisfied with this visit.

Losing a parent was never easy.

Then again, he wasn’t sure of anything yet. Perhaps there was an explanation that he could buy. If this Thalia—or Christina—had only just risen after a very long period of rest, she may not have even known the rules of this era. There were many exceptions and considerations when it came to applying vampire law. Vampire biology alone would require such exceptions, since at any one time, a significant number of vampires might be in hibernation and entirely unaware of anything that changed in the living world.

Change came slow, but change happened even within the stiff and formal vampire culture. Their species existed in a constant state of “catching up” with the humans, grudgingly adjusting their culture to remain invisible to humans. Vampires were not magical creatures who absorbed knowledge. They were physical creatures, and as flawed as any human. Only their ability to change bodies made them seem magical.

The reality was far less mysterious. And also less attractive.

Girard met Yadikira’s gaze and saw the worry there. Best to get it over with. “Our central office noted an oddity in a little town in Kansas. A middle school burnt to the ground during an assembly. Forty children and several teachers and school officials were killed in the blaze.”

Watching Thalia carefully in his peripheral vision as he spoke, he detected a tightening in her limbs. Girard moved his hand another inch closer to his weapon. Thalia’s gaze grew stony, but she made no move to stop him.

Yadikira caught the unspoken exchange and her forearm flexed as she squeezed her mother’s hand. “And we are in upstate New York, a very long way from Kansas. What can that have to do with us?”

She seemed sincere. Was she unaware of how her mother had gotten the body she now wore? That seemed unlikely. It was impolite to comment on a new form with a relative stranger, but certainly not between friends or family. And since modern times had made changing bodies so hazardous, it was a cautious act. Everyone paid attention to such transitions.

“You must be aware that she is wearing the body of one of those children.”

A low vibration traveled through the floor to his feet. No sound accompanied it, but he knew what it was even so. It was coming from the girl, a primitive warning signal leftover from the primal eras before written memory. He’d heard it only from old ones, and usually right before they attacked.

Yadikira must have felt it too, because she yanked the child close, enfolding the smaller frame in her arms as if to contain or protect her. “She didn’t know! She slept for almost two thousand years! How could she know?”

Girard took an involuntary step back at her words. Two thousand years? How was that even possible? No one slept for that long without turning to dust. Death often came to vampires that only slept fifty or a hundred years. That’s how most vampires eventually died, by sleeping too long. There were very few vampires that lived long enough to reach a thousand years in age, let alone two thousand. And for that amount of time to be spent resting, how old must a vampire be?

Thalia’s eyes had gone silvery again, the tiny points of light so numerous that they made her irises almost solid silver. Calling her an old one would be an underestimation. She was an ancient…or even something beyond ancient.

That changed everything.

 

Two

Yadikira kept her arms around Thalia, pushing her so that the girl was protected behind the old woman’s back. The message was clear, even without words. Girard would have to go through the daughter to get to the mother, and she was an innocent, one so sparing that she used a body long past its useful life. He wouldn’t do that, not unless there was no other choice. They hadn’t reached that particular impasse yet. He hoped they would never reach it.

Many saw Girard as cold, lacking the warm connections others took for granted. A loner with a head for the vampire legal system and not a shred of sympathy. It wasn’t true, only an image he found useful. Girard was merely careful, wary of being hurt yet again. Live long enough and everyone grew calluses around their heart, whether human or vampire. It might be harder to break through his shell than most—even Girard would admit as much—but once past it he was as gooey as anyone else. And right now, his jaded heart felt a pang at the sight of Yadikira, her shoulders trembling as she stood between them.

Courage and loyalty always stirred him.

Behind Yadikira, the girl laughed again, but the sound was off, brittle and jagged. Definitely unbalanced. Yet, if she had been sleeping for that long, her disorientation would be severe now that she was awake. And in a new body? Well, it might be too much.

He’d dealt with several vampires who’d slept for excessive periods, but both of those had slept for periods measured in believable stretches of less than a hundred years. One of those vampires had been reckless for months until the euphoria finally faded. Eventually, the Guardians had been forced to keep him in the Guardian headquarters until he regained his mental equilibrium. Girard couldn’t imagine what the girl might feel now after two thousand years. Even so, Girard had a job to do and he was going to do it.

“She might have been resting, but you understand the repercussions of any purposeful fire like that well enough. You know what you should have done. These things must be reported, dealt with.” Girard said the words with as little emotion as possible, trying to keep things calm.

Yadikira’s arms shook from the odd position she was in, reaching behind her and holding on so tightly to the smaller girl. Her thin chest rose and fell quickly. “I wasn’t sure. She took the child in Egypt. I couldn’t be sure of the rest. She didn’t tell me much.”

Girard nodded his understanding. He had suspected that possibility. Fires happened, even in schools. It was all that came with the fire that had brought it to the attention of the Guardians. The Guardians were few in number and their responsibilities many. In these days of internet connectivity and constant news, they no longer needed to travel the world and collect information that might be months old by the time they heard it. The Guardian compound was in the heart of the Northeast Territory and they left only to investigate those things that stirred their interest. The rest of the time, Girard—and the others—watched screens and scrolled the news. The once-onerous life of a Guardian now resembled the life of any other cubicle worker for the most part. The upside is that they were able to catch anything suspicious in their territory almost as soon as it happened.

In this case, the details of the case couldn’t fail to rouse the Guardians to action. The fire had killed adults who should have herded their charges outside, and there should have been plenty of time to do just that. The children not killed in the fire gave strangely similar reports and the fire was simply too complete. And most curious of all, one of the children reportedly killed by the fire had traveled to Egypt not long before the fire. While there, she was the subject of a brief alarm when she’d disappeared for several hours. Upon her return, unusual and disruptive behavior had been noted, an unexplained change in personality.

All of that pointed to one thing: the illegal taking of a body.

Taking a new body was now bound by strict rules and regulations, but even before such rules were needed, there were customs that vampires adhered to for the safety of all their kind. Taking a body while it traveled had always been the preferred method. Friends and family expected changes in a person after long journeys, and disappearances while traveling were common enough before this modern era began. Also, travelers tended to have a bit more money than the average person, which was handy for a vampire. Sadly, none of these things were the case any longer, but any vampire who had rested for more than a hundred years wouldn’t know that.

And two thousand years? The changes would be more than most minds could bear. Where would a newly woken vampire even start? It would be a bit like waking up on another planet with an entirely alien species. He was curious, but curiosity was for later. Right now he had a job to do.

“And the school?” he asked, because really, that was the important subject here. These sorts of things had become increasingly difficult to cover up. And they shouldn’t have to do that. Human life was as valuable as vampire life and never for wasting.

Vampires didn’t kill unless there was no other choice, and even then, there was usually a way not to kill.

Thalia’s voice was small when she answered and she didn’t show herself, remaining tucked behind her daughter’s body. “That was an accident and not of my design,” she said, but her voice was so different from before that she almost sounded like another person. A sad person, a frightened girl.

Yadikira’s face crumpled at those words and in her gaze was a plea for her mother. A plea for understanding. “I’m helping her now. I promise I’ll take care of her until she understands the world. I swear it.”

Again Girard nodded, but only in understanding. He could make no promises until he knew the circumstances. There were rules and there were consequences for breaking them. Even so, the nature of vampires meant that there was leeway in how those rules were enforced. At any one time, perhaps a quarter of their remaining number rested. When they rose again, they knew only what they’d known when they went to sleep. Allowances had to be made for that.

Sometimes crimes weren’t crimes at all, but merely mistakes.

In other instances, actions that had been part of acceptable daily life in the past were now crimes that warranted a harsh sentence. It was the job of the Guardian to update the newly risen on the rules as much as it was to enforce those rules.

And to arrange for cover ups when the situation needed covering up.

“Perhaps you could enlighten me,” Girard suggested. “I can only judge what I know.”

The older woman almost shrank as she pushed out a breath, her relief apparent. While he couldn’t know the story they would tell him, she clearly felt it would be sufficient. That in itself gave him information. If the old woman thought that what they told him would erase the danger to her newly risen mother, then it was likely to do exactly that.

Thalia had apparently grown tired of this little tableau, because she poked her head around her daughter’s body and frowned at Girard. The frightened girl was back to being the off-kilter vampire. “I never liked the Astynomia, even though I understood we needed them. I voted to create your forces. It seems nothing has changed with your kind. Still poking your noses into everything.”

The sharp, but slightly petulant way she spoke forced a smile from Girard, though a small one. She had the flat Midwestern accent of her body’s origins, but she spoke like an ancient. Also, if she had been one of those who voted the Guardian’s into existence, then his estimates of her age were not nearly high enough.

Yadikira glanced down at her mother, then back at Girard, very obviously weighing the situation. “I suppose we should talk, then. Perhaps we can sit? May I have your assurance that we are in no danger from you, Guardian?”

Girard let his suit jacket fall back into place, hiding his pistol from view, though the scent of it would provide a constant reminder to them all. Thalia wide blue eyes tilted up as she grinned. He couldn’t decide if she grinned because she was crazy or because she knew it meant he wouldn’t dispatch her immediately.

If he had to bet, he’d say crazy.

“I’m ready to listen,” he said.

 

Three

The interior room where they sat was as different from those echoing outer chambers as it could be. Old rugs overlapped each other on the floor, absorbing noise and filling the room with the muted colors of a dozen civilizations and eras. Lamps set in the corners created a mild, yellow-tinged glow and soft shadows. Little mementos rested on tables and crowded display cases, telling a tale of travels and time.

Girard ran his finger over a stylized golden figure no bigger than the center of his palm, yet in near-perfect condition. “Viking?”

Yadikira gave a half-nod, half-shrug and said, “Their forebears, but close enough. I liked them. They were very bold, but marvelously good company.”

She motioned him toward a deep chair and took a seat on a matching sofa opposite. He heard the bones in her hips pop as she sat and she winced in pain. Thalia plopped onto the couch at the other end. She looked very like a modern tween in a serious pout. Her bare foot immediately commenced bouncing against the couch in another, very human, fidget.

He watched them from the corner of his eye as he scanned the busy room. There were many objects here worth admiring and he wished this were the kind of social call that would permit him to examine them all. Hearing the stories of each object would be enjoyable.

Girard had always liked history, his passion for the stories of visiting elders unquenchable and his questions never-ending when he was small. He’d often made a pest of himself with his interruptions and ready ear. When there was some physical thing to touch as he heard a story, he imagined what it had been like to live it. He could get lost in the tales. He sighed as he focused again on the two women.

Yadikira’s eyes were soft when he looked at her. She nodded in the direction of a case filled with tiny objects and said, “I’ve collected each of these things. I see your interest. I’m the same way.”

Thalia snorted and waved her hand dismissively. “You young ones always romanticize the past. It was only dirty and dangerous. I say it’s best forgotten.” A brief flash of confusion crossed her features as her gaze slid across the table between the sofa and chair. A tiny illuminated manuscript lay under glass next to a jeweled cross—probably Byzantine—along with other medieval objects.

It struck Girard that if Thalia had truly slept for so long, then she had missed all of it. When she went to sleep, the majority of humanity lived in simple Bronze Age tribes outside of a few shining—yet still primitive—civilizations. If she had gone to rest in Egypt, then she had woken to another world entirely. And given the youth of the body she’d taken, it was likely that the history of the last two thousand years was either absent or very generalized in her mind. History education was sorely lacking for the children of today. Much of the past two thousand years would be a blank slate in Thalia’s mind.

Thalia would only have access to the knowledge her new body possessed when it came to the modern world.  Thalia would have been wiser to take an older, more educated body. She might be less confused.

“You seem to have adjusted well,” he observed. “Your speech is impressive. Save for your pronunciation of astynomia, I would have thought you a child of this age.”

Thalia shrugged and picked at a fold of leather on the arm of the couch. “She was a bright girl. Very inquisitive and she read quite a lot. I found her enchanting, a perfect vessel. No handmaiden, but good enough.”

Handmaiden? He glanced at Yadikira, but she only widened her eyes and gave the smallest shake of her head, an unspoken, but very clear signal: Don’t ask.

“And her condition?” Girard asked, steering clear of the topic. Yadikira tensed at the other end of the couch, her fingers tightening around each other and her lips thinning as she waited for the answer. In this new era, the rules on who could be taken were strict and without exception. In the past, there were no rules, only guidelines. In truth, until the modern era no one actually cared who was taken unless it exposed vampires somehow. Even without restrictions however, most vampires had limited themselves to taking humans who met very specific physical conditions. Had Thalia followed those guidelines?

Thalia shrugged and said, “She walked away from her people. A girl alone like that in the dark is no safer now than ever in history. She would have died…or worse. I took her first. She had a sickness of the blood and was soon for death anyway, so I saw no harm. She reeked of her malady.”

Girard was also aware of that fact. The girl had leukemia, which had returned again and again. This trip was meant to be her dream trip, a final wish granted to children given terminal diagnoses. She had just come out of remission, and was once again ill. It was just another fact associated with the fire that had alerted the Guardians.

Yadikira broke in and said, “You see. It was within our laws, even as they are now. And the fire was an accident. No harm was intended.”

Girard watched Thalia for her reaction. Her eyes narrowed a touch, but her gaze didn’t waver from her focus on the fold of leather. His gut told him this was no accident, but such things did happen. Most fires in this world happened without a vampire to light the match. When it came to committing arson, humans outstripped vampires for performance a hundred to one. Perhaps she had used it as a cover to disappear or perhaps she was not the cause of it at all, only a bystander.

Fire was one of the few parts of the vampire physiology that might be classified as magic from an outside viewer’s point of view, though it wasn’t. They concentrated heat—an unfixable discontinuity between their true body and their human body—which they had to dissipate at all times. Usually, it meant only that a human host ran a little hotter than their fellow humans, but sometimes it meant fire. Particularly with old ones.

“How did you conceal the healing of that body?” he asked the child.

She shrugged again, but that confusion flashed briefly once more. The modern world was still a little mysterious for her, clearly. “I behaved as if I were ill. When I realized that the place for the sick they were taking me to would be able to see inside this body, I arranged to disappear. The girl’s memories are filled with the medicine of today, so I understood enough to avoid being detected.”

Girard nodded, satisfied with that answer. It was good thinking on her part, especially since she probably didn’t truly understand the memories of medical treatment her new host carried. It was a strange experience and he knew it first-hand. The body he wore had belonged to a professional violinist. For a time, everything Girard saw somehow brought him back to music and he found that he could play in a way that almost made him cry. Eventually, that had faded…as it always did…but he remembered the confusion well enough.

“But not by fire?” he asked, needing to confirm she hadn’t killed humans simply to disappear.

“I did not plan the fire. As I said, that was mere accident.”

They were silent a few moments, Yadikira glancing between them, wary that the tide might turn against her mother. It was obvious to Girard in her every movement. For an old one, she was quite transparent with her feelings. He decided to change the subject to spare her further worry.

“How did you find your daughter, Thalia?” he asked.

She seemed surprised by the question and her brows drew together. “The way all mothers find their children, of course.”

Again Yadikira broke in to explain. “It’s a gift not often seen anymore, Guardian. Only the oldest possess it and then only if their children are also old. It used to be more common, but the world was less filled with humans then.”

“I see,” Girard said, but he didn’t see at all. He’d heard tales of vampires who could track those of their bloodline, but he’d never seen evidence of it himself. He’d thought it an old story, one of many meant to demonstrate how far their kind had fallen. Older vampires were fond of pointing out the failings of the younger generations. In that way, they were no different from humans, particularly when it came to exaggeration. Girard has always assumed this purported gift was the vampire equivalent of walking both ways uphill through the snow to school.

Thalia leaned forward on the couch, her eyes going silver as her interest was captured. “Do you not have children, Guardian?”

Pain seized Girard’s heart and twisted it. He kept the emotions off his face when he said, “No, I have no children.”

She must have sensed the careful order of his words, or perhaps she sensed the pain he tried to hide, because she tilted her head. Her cupid’s bow lips drew together in something that might be sympathy. “Not anymore, you don’t.”

He could only tilt his head in acknowledgement. The words wouldn’t come. Those memories were not for sharing with potentially mad ancients.

Thalia sighed and looked at her daughter. “Children are a rare enough gift for us to receive. Yadi here is my only remaining child from the time before. So many I bore and all of them gone except her. These bodies are too weak. They perish.”

Yadikira looked away as if embarrassed. He wondered if she had been fortunate enough to have a child. The last time Girard had tried to have a child, the body he’d worn had been snatched from a farm when he could bear the pressure of the fertilized egg no longer. A strong girl who had survived the depredations of war and pestilence, he had felt sure that she could bear the strain even as he took her form and watched his old body dissolve into a greasy smear at his newly transformed feet.

That attempt at creating a child had not ended well. He had wound up in the body of a shepherd boy, the only human he could find when the crisis came and he knew the girl’s form was dying. The child had died with her.

If he tried the same thing now, he would be hunted down by another Guardian for flouting their laws. He had become a Guardian shortly after that terrible incident, vowing that he would never again try to continue his bloodline. It was a strange juxtaposition the vampires had created for themselves. Limited to taking only the weak or dying so that they would not be exposed, they all but doomed their bloodlines by never taking the strong bodies they needed to successfully breed.

“I’m inclined to believe you, Thalia,” he said suddenly, surprising himself as much as the two women. He hadn’t actually intended to say that, and in truth, he didn’t fully believe them, but the words popped out anyway.

Yadikira’s eyes widened and the smile on her face erased decades. “You mean that? She is safe?”

“I won’t say the matter is closed, but I will say that the rising of an ancient so long asleep means greater deliberation is required. We are not blind in our judgements, despite what some might say about us. Context is important. However, the fire will be further investigated. I will discover if there are further matters requiring explanation.”

Her face almost entirely free of expression, Thalia seemed to be weighing his every word, looking for what he wasn’t saying. Eventually, she gave a sharp nod and said, “You’ll find nothing. The Astynomia will find no cause for alarm. The Guardians, I mean.”

Yadikira looked as if she might keel over from the stress and the relief she now felt. Her aged hand fluttered up to her chest and she sank back into the cushions of the couch. “Thank you, Guardian. Thank you.”

The pulse in Yadikira’s neck was thready and uneven. It squished through the arteries loudly. Blockages were building inside her arteries in a way no vampire could miss. Were she a human, she would be just this side of legal to take. She was dying.

“May I ask you something?” he asked her. “It’s purely personal and nothing to do with this case at all. You have no obligation to answer.”

Her cheeks were the pale, cool color of the aged, but now they flushed with the tiniest hint of heat. Thalia grinned as if she knew the question he would ask.

“Ask your question,” she said. She probably knew what he was going to ask too.

“Why? Why do you remain in that body? It’s dying, you know. You must know that. Why do you risk yourself like that?”

Her smile was sad and small. Her eyes flicked once toward another of the many glass cases in the room, but didn’t linger there. It was an involuntary movement. Girard looked in that direction.

Amongst the baubles and bits of history was an image. It was an old one, taken when camera technology was still uncommon and traveling photographers roamed the country. The man and woman in the picture had the stiff postures present in most such images. The woman in the old photo was the one sitting before him now. Perhaps thirty human years old in the image, she sat tucked close to a man whose eyes were as old as hers.

“I see,” he said, because he did. She was staying for love.

Yadikira’s smile was more wistful than sad, but he could read the loss in the lines of her face. “He went to rest some years after that photo, but went to dust while he slept. If I leave…”

He knew well enough what she meant. When she left this body, the memories of the new body would be prominent, pushing the past back and erasing the vividness of the life this body had lived. It would be like taking full color movies and turning them into rough, bare sketches.

It was the price vampires paid. Not even their memories were truly their own forever, at least not the way they were for humans.

Thalia snorted rudely. “Everything dies. Even us if we’re stupid enough to stay in old bodies. Wallowing is useless. Get a new body and feel again!” She again gave that dismissive wave. This ancient was an impatient being, that much was clear. And not at all sentimental, apparently.

Then again, it would be harder to remain sentimental after so many lives. How could one even keep up with everything one should be sad about or miss after thousands of years and dozens of bodies?

Looking down at her hands, Yadikira nodded and said, “I know, Mother. I will.”

Since electronic signals inside a vampire abode were more than frowned upon unless invited, Girard didn’t have his phone on him. He was itching to research any vampire named Thalia. If she was an ancient, then he had never heard of her…and he’d researched or heard tales about hundreds of individuals over the centuries.

He had a passing familiarity with the name Yadikira, though he’d never met her or had any cause to come into contact with her before. He knew she was an old one, but one who remained reclusive and did not mingle with others. She was recorded in the vampire rolls as meek, yet unfailingly law-abiding, her age unknown. Listed as a quiet traveler and artist, she was so far below the radar that she barely existed on it at all. Most of her history was absent from the Guardian records.

One of the few certainties about her was that she was known to not have hibernated since records had begun being kept for this area. It was thought that she was one of the few vampires who had never hibernated, though no one knew for certain, particularly since her age wasn’t known. The best guess for her age was listed as over a thousand years, but less than two thousand. That made her venerable, but not ancient. If Thalia was her mother and she the youngest child, Girard had to wonder how much of this world’s existence Thalia had seen. That also meant that Yadikira had to be two-thousand years old, at least. After all, she would have been born before Thalia went into hibernation.

That meant Yadikira was also an ancient…two rarities in one day.

Girard had been more than surprised when a CCTV feed had flagged the girl’s face in a town near this compound. There was only one vampire registered anywhere near here: Yadikira. Someone so keen to stay out of sight didn’t seem a likely host for a fleeing ancient like Thalia. Now that he’d seen her and her mother, things were a little clearer.

Now, he also understood her shy nature better. She wore a dying body so that she could keep the memories of her love alive. She was in mourning and that touched Girard right where he lived.