Every morning for twelve years I'd knelt on the floor and chanted, almost mumbling so that she wouldn't hear:
U hiragna Arianen essacor nastharein.
I was doing the lunch dishes when it went off. Prickles in my temples. He was on his way.
We'd lived quietly here, surrounded by trees on the edge of town, since Jess was in third grade. No one knew who I was or who her mother was or what we had been before. I worked as a sort of unlicensed doctor, calling myself a naturopath. Jessica went to school and didn't fight back when the kids teased her for being so strange. We kept out of sight.
The glass I was washing broke in my hands. I swore and froze. I wished it wasn't happening. Then I swore again at how much time I'd wasted.
I dried my hands and went to the foot of the stairs. We were lucky. Another half-hour and she'd be at a friend's and if she was what he was coming for there'd be nothing I could do.
“Jessica!” I called.
She heard the crack in my voice and was at the top of the stairs in an instant.
“Someone's coming. You need to hide in the armoire.”
I tried to sound calm. “Take a book with you. This might take a while. I'll get you a snack.”
“Okay,” she said.
“Go on, we didn't get much warning.” She walked stiffly to her room.
I went back to the kitchen and put a package of chips and a bottle of water into a lunch bag. On top I put a half-full pack of gum, since she would probably be too nervous to eat. She came down the stairs, a dog-eared novel in her hand, looking scared. I gave her the bag.
“Thanks,” she mumbled. She glanced up at me. Her eyes were the same blue as her mother's.
“Better go on,” I said. Then I squeezed her against me with both arms and kissed the side of her head. Her hair smelled faintly of strawberry.
“Who is it?” she asked.
I've never been able to lie to her. She's too sharp. “Arianth.” Her arms tightened around me.
I'd told her about him, as I'd told her about many other things that people don't know. They say he was someone elevated where he was from, a prince or something. Here, nobody knows how to stop him.
“Go on,” I said again, and pulled away. “It'll be okay.” Then, louder, trying to sound confident, “You know what to do if someone comes.”
“Yeah,” she nodded. So brave, she was.
“It'll be okay.”
“Yeah.” She went into the basement and closed the door behind her.
I went to the drawer under the microwave and pulled it out all the way. I took the pistol out from the back of the drawer and slid it into the waistband of my shorts. I went out on the porch and sat on the steps to wait.
It wasn't much over a minute when a car came up the drive: a Cadillac coupe, very white in the sun. It slid up to the garage and stopped. The driver left the engine running when he got out. He seemed thinner than last time I saw him. He looked at me and I glanced down at the walk.
Behind him was a boy, maybe sixteen or seventeen. He was short but muscular, with blond ringlets like a bust of Alexander the Great.
“Embalost,” said Arianth.
“I don't use that name anymore.” I stood. “What do you want,” I said flatly, looking at the second button of his shirt.
“This is Samuel,” said Arianth, motioning to the boy. I looked at the boy and then back to the man, who smirked. “He's not mine. He's - do you know who your father and mother are, Samuel?”
The boy shrugged almost imperceptibly.
“I don't remember the parents' names,” Arianth went on, “but he's nephew of the Lord Mage of the Irburans. Dead now, of course, like the rest.” He came up the steps, and his arm brushed against my chest as he strode past me into the house. I took a step back, and the boy followed him. I went in last. The screen door with its worn-out closer swung inward behind me and petered out, still ajar.
“What do you want,” I said again.
I felt the bile in the back of my throat.
“The old families are not what they were. Not many left. Not many girls of marriageable age. She's an good bride for Samuel.”
Arianth shrugged faintly. The boy's shrug had been an imitation of his master's. “Samuel's not much older than that. It's time for him to take his place in the world. You know he can't marry some ordinary girl with no talents. Someone ignorant.”
“Don't,” I said. I was panicking and Arianth could see it. “Wait a few years. Then we can talk about it.”
He looked at me, his brow slightly furrowed as if to suggest he found me confusing. On an endtable there were some recipe books, notes Jess and I had scrawled to each other, a framed picture of her, another of her mother. Arianth picked up my daughter's picture.
“She's lovely,” he said, and handed it to Samuel.
The pistol was out and I was cocking it. I pointed it at his head, my knuckles pale, the tip of the barrel quivering.
Arianth's eyes narrowed. “You know that's futile.”
“Put it down.”
I felt paralyzed.
“Put it down,” he repeated, angrily now.
I did as he said. I lowered the gun slowly, then laid it on the island between us. He gave it a grim look. With a loud crack it sprung and bent into a mangled, crablike shape.
I lowered my head and what I thought was I love her and I wish I could have given her a better life. I looked up a few seconds later, still alive. Arianth was sniffing the air.
“I will get her. Watch him, Samuel.” He walked into the hall, looked up the stairs, looked right and left, and then opened the basement door. I heard every footstep as he went down.
The boy set the picture of my daughter down on the counter and watched me. There was a lifelessness in his eyes and a sort of slackness in his face, as if the skin were numb. He was under the man's control. Arianth preferred slaves.
I watched the boy lean against the counter and I watched the clock on the kitchen wall. Two minutes had passed. I listened, but I could hear nothing from the basement.
The boy's eyes fell to the picture. His lips pursed slightly. If he had had any qualms about this his master had winnowed them out of him.
Two and a half minutes had gone by and I decided it was enough. I stepped forward and punched the boy in the cheek.
His arm jerked in surprise and the picture skipped across the island. Then he had drawn a knife. He wielded it well. He jabbed and caught my right forearm as I tried to pull away. Then he swung suddenly and cut hard into my left bicep.
I stepped back and held my arm as if it might fall off. It was a deep wound. Blood bubbled up from under my fingers. I swore. I rounded my shoulders and backed away from him. I found a dishcloth and tried to get it over the cut. It looked like it would hurt terribly but it didn't. I could tell that the blade had gone into the muscle. I'd need to go to the hospital, quickly. This was more than I could treat by myself.
The boy still had the bloody knife in his hand. He watched me squeeze my arm to my side to hold the cloth in place, as I cursed him under my breath.
Then Jessica came up the stairs, quietly. She stopped in the hallway and stared at us, her eyes wide and her mouth open. In her two hands she had the pistol I kept hidden in the basement. I shrunk down a little more. She was aiming at Samuel but I was behind him and her aim was not much good.
She didn’t fire. The gun captured Samuel's full attention. He turned towards her, brandishing the knife, and started to growl something. With my good arm I picked up a pot from the dishdrainer and swung.
It glanced off his head; he wavered, and I caught him again with a backhand. Jess jumped and yelped. I felt lucky the gun didn’t go off. Punch-drunk, the boy turned to face me and waved the knife feebly. My third blow drove into his forehead over the left eye and he collapsed.
Now Jessica screamed, sharply, then cut it off.
“It's okay,” I said. I put the dented, bloody pot on the counter and tried to tighten the soaked rag over my arm. “Is he in? Did it get him?” I asked.
I'd spent years working on that armoire. It was modeled after a magician's trick chest. There was a trap door in the back that led to a tiny space she could slip into. Her scent stayed in the main compartment, so he would look for her there. When he reached in, the box would have him. From the inside, the doors would open only for her.
I hadn't expected it would actually work.
“Is it going to hold him?” she asked. She was staring, horrified, at the body on the floor.
“Not long. A month if we’re lucky. Maybe just through the night.” I motioned to the gun barrel, which was pointing too much in the direction of my legs. “Give that to me now. And get me a clean cloth.”
The boy on the floor was breathing shallowly. Arianth didn't need a disciple, especially not a Lord Mage's nephew. I had the gun in my hand. But with Jessica there I couldn't do it. There had to be a difference between us and them. I put the pistol in my waistband and then I remembered I had to go to the hospital for my arm, so I took it out and set it on the counter.
“Go close up your bag,” I said. “Once my arm is sewn up, we're going.”
Her whole life, we'd lived out of suitcases. Everything that was special, everything you couldn't leave behind, you kept ready to go. The few friends she had thought I was crazy.
“I'll get your bag, too,” she replied. “What else do you need?” There was no emotion in her voice. She would cry later, I guess.
“My netbook, that's all. The dossier on my desk. The picture of your mother there,” I pointed to the endtable. She had to step over the body on the floor to reach it.
“It'll be okay,” I said. “By the time he finds us again, we'll be ready.”
She mumbled something I couldn't hear. Her mother's picture in her hand, she went up the stairs two at a time.