Firebird is back from the editor! I have just over 10 days before I have to upload its final draft to Amazon to fulfill their pre-order requirements, and then it will be ready to go!
Also exciting is La Sylphide’s new title and cover. I’ve knocked the La off, making it just Sylphide (grammatically incorrect, I know, but it fits better with Tempest‘s title that way) and switched it to this cover:
It’s a little more intense than before, but I think it sets the mood for the story. I had lots of fun making it, and it makes a nice match for the cover I’ve done for Tempest.
Yay for Photoshop!
I’ll show you Tempest‘s cover soon. The first draft just passed 16,000 words! I get to blow something up in the next scene.
Anyway. In today’s chapter, we’re back to Meese and she’s heavily medicated. I had a lot of fun writing this, since normally her inhibitions prevent her from saying too many crazy things.
Without further ado, onto the Chapter!
Mieshka awoke sometime later, in the dark.
Doctor Deforet had insisted on rest. Something about injuries needing sleep, and the idiocy of keeping an injured trauma patient at work without the proper care. There’d been more French expletives when he’d said it, but she’d gotten the gist.
Mieshka didn’t mind one bit. Besides, the oxy-whatever-he-called-it had kicked in. The room swam in a dim, drug-induced haze.
She snuggled into the sheets. They smelled like lavender. And they were soft. Oh, so soft.
Someone knocked on the door. “Meese?”
She opened a bleary eye, trying to remember if that was the first or second time someone had done that.
“Mrph?” She said.
The door opened a crack. She blinked at the sudden light. “Your phone’s going off.”
Phone. She lifted her head. It was Jo. She had something in her hand.
As if on cue, the something in her hand gave off a very familiar chirp.
Ah. She stuck her arm out, stifled a yawn. “Thanks.”
When Jo closed the door again, Mieshka swiped the phone’s screen off and stuffed it under the pillow. The room became dark again. Quiet. Peaceful.
The pillow buzzed.
Sometimes, you just couldn’t win. She pulled it out.
Seven new messages. Three from her dad, three from Robin, and one from Aiden.
The fire mage loved her so much.
Robin’s messages weren’t that old. Only—she checked the time—seven hours.
Mieshka lifted her head. She’d been asleep for seven hours?
She jerked upright. That can’t be right. Normal people only sleep eight hours a day—and she’d gotten her eight hours last night. How the hell would she sleep tonight? Was this a side effect of the oxy-whatever?
The room spun slightly. The scent of lavender faded.
When she tried to stand, pain twanged up her legs. She stumbled into the doorframe and dropped her phone.
The voices on the other side of the door stopped. A chair scraped back. She heard footsteps.
This time, when the door opened, she almost fell into Jo.
“Hi,” she said.
McKay sat in the chair, snuggled by the packs and the potted tree in the corner. Her face looked more burned out than before—but her eyes gleamed sharp and alert in the room’s lighting. The other chairs sat empty. Clinking sounded to her left, toward the back of the clinic. A second later, Chris emerged, juggling a tray of beakers. The glass rattled as he paused.
Mieshka smiled. “Hi,” she said, and lost her balance against the door.
Jo caught her fall, hauling her up by the arm. The room didn’t spin, exactly, but it felt like she’d just got off a trampoline and the floor didn’t move in quite the way she’d expected it to.
“Come on,” Jo said. “No swooning. Here you go. Sit down before you fall down.”
She sat her back down on the bed, and Mieshka swayed on the mattress. A shadow moved onto the floor, and she watched Chris’s shoes pause as they came to the door. He didn’t speak. Glass clinked as he moved on.
Huh. They used to talk all the time at school. If he kept up that attitude, she and Robin would boycott him at lunchtime.
That is, if school ever started up again. The Lyarnese school system was pretty hardcore about keeping the schools open—no matter the amount of snow on the ground—but an enemy invasion might put a stop to that.
And, by what happened to Aiden’s office, maybe that invasion had already began. Lyarne’s core defense lay in its shield, and if the shield were compromised—
Orange light flared on Mieshka’s skin. Magic tingled her senses. A strange pulling sensation hit her, as if the air had thinned. A slip of wind brushed her cheek, as if the air were drawing a big breath.
Jo sat down beside her, making the mattress dip. A second later, Aiden appeared in the spot she’d been standing. Fiery symbols skittered across his skin, leftover from the teleport.
He looked more tired than before. The clean, button-up shirt had become worn and rumpled, and soot smudged his cuff. His eyes sank deep into his head, and his skin looked greasy, with deep furrows under his eyelids. The whites of his eyes were shot with blood.
In the lobby, McKay gaped at him. Not everyone was used to Aiden’s travel methods.
“Do you ever teleport into a wall?” Mieshka asked. “And get stuck?”
Aiden lifted an eyebrow.
“She’s on some good drugs,” Jo explained.
“Oxy-something-or-other.” Mieshka smiled.
“Amongst other things.”
“There were other things?” Geez, no wonder she felt good. She’d never really been drugged before—well, not unless one counted her last hospital visit. Apparently she’d been given a few things in an attempt to wake her from the coma. None of which had worked.
Now, maybe the medication was meant to make her sleep. Maybe that’s why she’d slept for seven hours. Doctor Deforet had really wanted her to sleep. He’d said as much during the examination.
Mieshka stifled a yawn.
“So,” she said. “Did we figure out who bombed the office?”
He opened his mouth to speak, but Jo beat him to it.
“Not really,” she said.
He sighed, shifted, and leaned against the wall. Finally, he looked down at Mieshka.
“How are you? I heard you had quite the… day.”
Right. Seven hours. That was pretty much a day, wasn’t it? They were well into the afternoon now.
“She only ripped one stitch. Everything’s fine,” Jo said. “Of course, you would know that if you ever bothered to read your phone.”
“One ripped stitch does not tell me how she is, Jo. There are other scales to health besides how much a wound bleeds. Especially with a mage.” He leaned down, squinted at Mieshka. “Did your eyes glow?”
“Not that I noticed,” Jo said. “She had them closed most of the way here.”
Mieshka leaned forward. Her shoulder ached, but it was an old feeling. It didn’t matter so much.
“You should train me more so I can stop your office from burning down next time,” she said. “And laugh at bombers.”
Aiden shifted, sighed again. His shirt wrinkled over his abdomen as he slouched. “When we get to Mersetzdeitz, you’ll get all the training you could want.”
Mieshka perked up. This was the first time he’d spoken of leaving—at least, the first time since they’d met and he’d struck the deal with her in the first place. In becoming his apprentice, she secured herself a place on his getaway jet for herself plus one.
“So, we’re leaving, then? What about Sophia’s thing? And the shield? And—” She frowned. “Hey, did we get invaded while I was asleep?”
A picture of enemy tanks and troops in the main square popped into her mind. With all she’d done to thwart Swarzgard’s last invasion attempt, she bet her picture was plastered on every enemy billboard across the occupied country. Soldiers would definitely be looking for her.
And what about Dad? Were they at her apartment, right now, capturing him?
“Swarzgard is still busy with Terremain,” Jo said. “Our troops gave them something to occupy their time with in the middle country. It’ll be a few days before land troops get here—”
“—and the shield will hold off the air troops,” Aiden finished. “Now, let’s get you up. I bet your father has some choice words for me.”
Jo moved to pull her up, but Mieshka hung onto the bed. She bit her lip.
“I don’t really feel like going up all those stairs,” she said.
Aiden leaned forward, put his shoulder under her arm to help her along. He was shorter than Jo, better able to help her walk.
“Then it’s a good thing the Society got that elevator working.”
The office had a gross, charred smell to it. The bomb had blasted out the windows, burned through half the walls, and destroyed the floor. A haze of smoke still lingered in the air, visible in the three still-working lights.
It smelled like burned plastic.
What the fire hadn’t touched, the sprinklers had. Mieshka’s shoes squeaked as she hobbled in, slipping on the water.
Jo caught her, quick as ever. Mieshka giggled as Aiden slipped past them, his shoes making more squeaks.
Then she had a thought.
“Hey,” she said. “If I’m your apprentice, does that make you my master?”
The room fell silent. Aiden froze where he was, half-bent over the remains of his computer.
“You know.” The fire mage straightened. “The terms never translated well into English. They turned a bit…”
“Kinky?” Jo suggested.
“—medieval,” Aiden emphasized. “Just call me a teacher or something. Please don’t say ‘master’ in front of your father.”
Mieshka giggled, and Jo led her to what was left of the couch, which sagged on one side like a beached whale. The back had been ripped apart by shrapnel, but the cushions seemed largely intact.
Aiden bent back down behind his computer. They heard a few heavy clunks, some swears. When he resurfaced, a singed metal box hung from a cable in his hand.
“Back-up drive,” he explained. “Might be able to salvage stuff.”
“Thought all your shit was backed up in the engine?”
“Well, yeah, but this shit is able to be read by mundane computers. And—”
“Someone’s coming. Military.” Buck stood by the only remaining window, his eyes narrowed in the light. He frowned down on the street outside, beefy arms crossed over his chest.
He seemed more annoyed than concerned. Mieshka took heart in that.
They heard them a minute later. Boots pounded the stairs.
“They’re slower, this time,” Jo said. “Maybe they took your hint.”
Aiden moved away from the computer. The drive had vanished from his hand, hidden away on the half-melted, charred desk. “I gave them more than a hint, last time.”
The first soldiers who came through the door were armed, but hadn’t drawn. An improvement. They parted to the side without a word, taking sentry position on both sides of the door.
They said nothing. Their behavior was stiff and strict, dead-serious.
A second later, they saw why.
The president walked in, heels clicking on the door. She wore a cream-colored jacket and skirt combo that Mieshka recognized from some of her press conferences, with a blouse that ruffled near her neck. Small pearls gleamed in her ears.
She stopped near the center of the room, shoulders back, head at an authoritative tilt. Her eyes surveyed the room as a king would, nose crinkling at what she saw.
Or maybe it was the burnt plastic smell that lingered in the air.
“Hello, Madam,” Aiden said. “So nice to see you again.”
“Cut the crap. How did this happen?”
Aiden raised an eyebrow.
“We had a bomb. Two, actually.” He spoke slowly, as if to a child. “The first missed the building’s entrance by half a meter and blew itself up on the lawn. The second—” He raised his hand, pointing. “Came through that window. It caused more damage.”
The president’s mouth twisted. She gave Aiden an ugly look. “I know what happened. I want to know how. Is the shield so unprotected that this—” She made a vague, violent gesture that encompassed the room. “—can happen?”
“Hey—it’s not his fault. He wasn’t here!”
The president’s anger snapped to Mieshka, fixing her in a steely glare.
Oops. Had she said that?
Jo tugged on her forearm, the only part of her that wasn’t bruised.
“And who,” the president said, “would you suggest I blame?”
Those eyes had a dangerous look to them, which Mieshka wholeheartedly ignored.
“Well,” she said, frowning. Words seemed to slur on her tongue, as if she wasn’t quite saying them right. “He was talking to you, wasn’t he? You called him out of his office. On the phone, this time.”
Silence took the room. Aiden’s hand had moved to his face. At first, she thought it was out of shock—or horror.
But then she saw his shoulders shake.
He was laughing.
“You know,” he said. “She’s right. I was talking to you.”
“This is your apprentice?”
Mieshka held out a bandaged hand. “Mieshka Renaud. At your service. Well—” She glanced down, remembering the pain and the bandages. “Maybe not at your service.”
The president did not take the hand. Instead, she turned back to Aiden, her professional face breaking for a second.
“What is she on?”
“Some concoction the doctor gave her,” Aiden said behind his hand. “She was here when the bomb went off.”
President Mira’s face softened. “I’m sorry.”
“Water under the bridge. She’s fine. Now, if you’re here for the shield, I can assure you that it’s still online. It’ll take a bit to recover the data for your computer. My server is somewhat fried.”
The meeting fell apart after that. Whatever she’d come to say seemed to have softened when she’d seen the state Mieshka was in. Either that, or the shield’s safety had assuaged her enough to send her packing.
She left soon after, taking the troops with her.
“I don’t trust her.” Buck had never left his post by the window. He watched the convoy leave, the red and blue lights of a cop car flashing across his face. “She’s hiding something. Something big.”
Aiden grunted under the computer. “She’s a politician. That’s practically a birth-rite for them.”
Mieshka snuggled into the half-burnt cushion as they worked. Her head tilted back onto the cushion as the room spun again. Exhaustion fell over her as the drugs worked their magic.
She slept until it was time to take her home.
When they got to her apartment, her father was arguing with someone.
She could hear it through the door, the way his voice rose and fell, the way the other person—a man—cut him off, mid-sentence. The wood muffled their exact words, but the tone was universal.
Buck paused, keys poised by the door’s lock, and met her gaze. His eyebrows lifted a fraction, a question in his eyes.
In answer, Mieshka pressed her ear against the door. The argument dropped off as she listened, and she heard something else in the background—the TV? Radio? Something clinked, a bag rustled. One person—Dad—asked a question, his tone turning up at the end.
The only answer was a set of footsteps, heading straight for the the front door.
She jerked back as it opened.
It had been nearly six months since Mieshka had seen her uncle, and she almost didn’t recognize him. Here was a man that was all hard edges and roughness, with a furious and red-rimmed look to his face—not the clean, soft-lined version she’d seen at her mother’s wake. Sure, he’d been military then, but he had been a civilian contractor—a tech guy who spent his days staring at code.
Mom had been the soldier, not him.
Things had changed.
He stopped short when he saw her. The anger on his face softened as recognition set in.
He said her name differently than everyone else did. Both he and her mother were second-gen Russian—her grandparents had grown up somwehre on the outskirts of St. Petersburg—and perfectly bilingual between their ancestral tongue and their adopted one. Her name, a combination of the Russian names Mika and Misha, rolled off his tongue with a breathless quality it lacked in Westray’s English environment.
“Hi, Uncle Alex,” she said.
Alex, short for Alexei. His eyes roved over her face, probably seeing the same thing in her as she saw in him—genetic traces of her mother. She saw her in the slight curve of his nose, the prominent cheekbones, the deep-set eyes.
Alexei put his bag—a mud-splashed military duffel—down and moved forward. Mieshka grit her teeth as his hug found the bruises on her ribs and pulled at the aggravated stitches in her bicep.
A shadow moved in the hallway behind him, and her father stepped into view. His eyes were dark, arms crossed over her chest. Unlike her uncle, he didn’t soften for her.
“You look so much like her,” Alexei whispered into her ear.
She snuggled into his shoulder, ignoring the pain. He smelled of sweat and smoke, of snow and wind, and his words tugged at her heart, fresh grief threatening to surface at the emotion she heard in his voice.
She clenched her jaw against the feeling and eyed the duffel on the floor.
“Are you leaving?” she asked.
Alexei retreated, his hands moving to her shoulders just like he used to do when she was little. But now, the height difference was gone. She looked him straight in the eyes.
“I just stopped to say hi,” he said. Which wasn’t strictly true, if she believed what her dad had said on Sunday. Behind him, her father shifted, caught her gaze, his lips pursed into a thin line.
Alexei, as if sensing him, stiffened. His arms dropped back to his sides, and he stooped to grab his bag.
“But you just got here,” she said.
Muscles tensed under the thin shirt he wore. She could see the dip of his spine, the crest of his shoulder blade as he picked up the heavy duffel. A new, raw, pink scar slashed across his bicep, growing thicker where it vanished under the sleeve. When he straightened, his eyes had hardened again. He put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed.
“I’ll drop in again.”
He slung the bag over his shoulder, stepped around her, and walked up the hallway. And took the stairs instead of the elevator.
He must have really wanted to leave.
Mieshka turned back. Her father had come out of the shadows now, and the hallway light beamed down over his loose t-shirt and worn jeans. Maybe it was the light, but he looked skinny under the clothes, as if his arms were thinner, tauter than she remembered. His collar bone seemed more prominent than it should have, where it stood out from the neck of his shirt. A rough shadow of stubble coated his gaunt cheeks.
But then he moved, and the light shifted. He looked back to normal. His eyes caught hers, flicked over the crutch and the bandages. They were brown like hers, not the blue Alexei shared with her mother.
“There was a bomb?” he said.
“Are you okay?”
Mieshka shrugged, then winced as it twinged her sore muscles. “A few more bruises. Ripped one stitch.”
And pulled the rest, which hurt a lot more than she’d thought it would. Even with the wonderful painkillers Dr. Deforet had given her, she could still feel the memory of the pain, sharp and immediate, from her wounds. “I’m okay, though.”
A muscle tightened in her father’s jaw. He turned to Buck. “Is she safe?”
“We will do our best to keep her from harm—”
“Is she safe?” her father repeated.
Buck paused, met her father’s eyes. He had a way with silence, could use a pause like a speech. He exchanged a look with her father, reading the nuance in his tone, his body language. Dad hadn’t uncrossed his arms, and his eyes, though tired, still held an edge of the anger she’d heard in his voice a few minutes ago, when Uncle Alex had stormed out of the apartment.
Eventually, Buck shifted back, broke the moment.
“For now,” he said. “If the people responsible for today’s attack had targeted her, they would have used something other than bombs. She’s practically immune to fire.”
To fire, yes, but not to shrapnel. She didn’t say anything, though.
“If things get hairy in the city, we’ll move you both into protected zones. We plan to evacuate well before the city falls.”
Before the city falls. Those were not words Mieshka had ever wanted to hear. She grit her teeth and moved her crutch forward, forcing her dad to step back from the door. The handle dug into the shallow bruise under her shoulder as she walked along, moving by habit rather than sight as her eyes adjusted to the dim light of the apartment. Behind her, Dad and Buck continued to talk.
By the time the front door shut and he shuffled back up the hall, she’d lain the crutch across her bed, pulled out her luggage cases, and sat down next to her dresser.
Time to pack.
Fire licked at her fingers. Mieshka stared at it in the mirror, fingers curled slightly as the flames danced at their tips.
She never figured herself a fire person before this. Never thought about it much. The fire element had been popular in childhood games, and Mieshka’s hair had certainly made her prime for the element, but the mages and their elements had been far away from Mieshka’s small, seaside hometown.
Which was probably why it had been one of the first to fall.
She tilted her hand, flexed her fingers. The fire tingled as it flitted over her skin, feeling like an affectionate pet. She’d turned off the light before she entered the bathroom. In the dark, it was only the fire that moved, catching its light in the faucets, the shower curtain, the curved edge of the fiberglass tub. In the mirror, the glow cast her face in amber, made the shadows flick on her skin, caught the orange of her hair with strands of copper and gold. Her eyes stared back, their brown irises partially visible in the shadow.
They weren’t glowing now.
Footsteps shuffled on the carpet outside. A shadow blocked the light underneath the door.
“Mieshka?” Her father spoke softly.
She met her gaze in the mirror for one more second, then let the fire extinguish on her hand. Heat lingered in the air as she turned to the door.
The floor creaked outside. After a moment, her father spoke again.
Another pause. She saw the shadow shift slightly. The floor creaked outside.
“It’s late,” he noted.
She examined the door. After a second, she pulled it open.
He looked much the same as before—same rough, loose shirt, same sweat pants. But he’d been more active around the house tonight—as she’d packed, he’d made more trips to and from his room than he usually did. She thought she’d heard extra rustling in his room, too. Twice, something heavy had hit the wall between them.
She knew the signs. He was restless. And she bet he was restless for much the same reason as she was.
Worry, guilt, grief… perhaps feeling a little bit left out.
But she didn’t want to deal with it right now.
She crossed her arms as she leaned against the doorframe. His eyes flicked over her, searched her face.
“Can’t sleep?” He asked. He didn’t ask about the dark bathroom.
“Yeah. Slept most of the day.”
An awkward silence crept in. Mieshka didn’t see any need to fill it. They looked back and forth at each other. She saw him gather himself, take in a deep breath.
Crap, was he going to have one of those father-daughter talks?
“Mieshka, if you ever need to—”
She cut him off. “I thought I’d go over to Robin’s.”
He stopped short. Frowned. “It’s past midnight.”
“She’s awake. I’ve been talking to her all night.”
She thought that might get him to relax—proof that she had been talking to someone, instead of holed up in her room. Or in a dark bathroom, as the case may be.
Okay, maybe he had an excuse to be worried. But she didn’t need him. Not right now.
Dad didn’t look convinced.
“It’ll be like a sleepover,” she said. “And her mom’s a nurse. If anything happens with my injuries, she can take care of it.”
“I suppose,” he said. “But—”
She dipped back inside and retrieved her phone from where she’d left it on the bathroom counter. Its screen glowed to life as she balanced it on her bandaged hand.
“Besides,” she said. “If we’re going to evacuate, I don’t have a lot of time left to spend with her.”
He didn’t argue much after that.