Sitting in her bedroom, Anandi read over the letter again, still not sure how she felt about it.
I am very much moved by your story and therefore have decided to accept your enrollment and that of your companion into Niyati Academy. However, please be aware that I have granted you admission based solely upon what you have told me and have also arranged for the two of you to attend free of charge, something very significant given that as we are a somewhat small private school our resources are limited. Therefore, I sincerely hope that both of you take advantage of this opportunity and excel in your studies here, so that all the faculty can be reassured that your free attendance is not a mistake on my part.
In any case, the school year begins officially on Tuesday September 20th. Enclosed are all the formal documents for your attendance, such as emergency contact forms and the code of conduct forms. These must be filled out and turned in to the Management Office on your first day before your classes, at which point you and your companion will be given your class schedules for first semester.
I look forward to seeing the two in the coming school year.
Cheryl Ackerman, Principal
She sighed. The letter made her both relieved and more stressed. A soft knock on her closed door made her jump.
"It's only me." a soft voice said through the door.
Anandi relaxed. "Come in."
The door opened and the girl who stepped in was the one person she trusted above all others.
Rather mellow in appearance, with her light brown hair and gray eyes, Safiya was generally a quiet and soft-spoken person, even though she could be quite outspoken if she had reason to be. Mostly however, she only truly spoke her mind to Anandi, trusting her above all others. The bond between them came from the past four years of their lives, years that had been filled with lots of traveling and hiding and grieving.
For the past four years, a shadowy group had been bringing misfortune down upon them. And while the specific reasons were still buried in mystery, it was obvious that the target was Anandi.
It had all started not long after Anandi's twelfth birthday. At that time, she had lived in a desert mansion owned by her family. The mansion was of course surrounded by a manmade oasis, complete with palm trees and shallow pools of clear water. She lived there with her parents and unmarried uncle, as well the staff employed there for cooking, cleaning, gardening, and so forth. Also in her parents' employ was a small security force for their personal protection. This force consisted of nine guards, most of whom Anandi had known since she was little. They were kind and loyal, devoted to protecting her family, though she never knew why they needed such protection, even if they were wealthy.
In any case, not long after he twelfth birthday, she received a strange letter in the mail. It had contained phrases such as "surrender yourself immediately or risk the bloodshed of those dear to you" and "do not think that you can escape us". She'd of course shown it to her parents right away, and their reaction startled her. They'd looked horrified, but not entirely surprised. It was more as if they were shocked this letter had been sent directly to her. The next day they went on the two hour drive to the nearest town, a small settlement with no paving and only around a hundred inhabitants. Her parents had said they needed to speak with someone there, and had brought Anandi with them with just the explanation of "you need to stay near us".
Despite this statement however, her parents didn't want her present at their meeting, and sent her instead to the small bakery down the street. As she was walking, she hadn't noticed a shadow darting between building behind her. Almost to the bakery, she was caught unaware by the man who leapt out at her, grabbing at her shoulders. She'd struggled, but she'd succeeded only in tearing his sleeve, exposing a strange tattoo of an eye within a triangle, with a strange symbol at each corner of the triangle. The man had yanked his arm away, and hit her across the face, sending her sprawling in the dirt. He recovered his composure quickly though, and had been about to snatch her up off the ground when someone else tackled him from behind.
He toppled forward in surprise, and the other person had flown off him, landing near Anandi. This small person had looked up at her with clear gray eyes before turning back to assault the attacker who had stood up and started in their direction. Anandi had gaped as the strange girl launched herself at the muscled man who towered above her. He'd grab a swung fist, only for her to kick at him, forcing him to release her to block it, with his other arm, letting her punch him with her other hand. Her hit had landed on his jaw, and had sent his stumbling back several paces, which was strange given that she was so small and he so hulking and large. Fury in his eyes, he rushed at her, pinning her arms to her sides and covering her mouth so she couldn't call out.
At which point she'd promptly bitten him. Hard.
He dropped her, as the saying went, "like a hot coal". After that, he seemed to decide Anandi wasn't worth the effort of fighting off what he probably considered a rabid street brat. He'd turned and disappeared.
Anandi sat there in shock until she heard her parents screams as they rushed towards her. It seemed as though they'd seemed the tail end of the fight and come running. Her mother pulled her up off the ground while her father brushed past her to grab the strange girl roughly by the arm.
"No, don't hurt her!" Anandi protested. "She saved my life!"
The baker, drawn out of his shop by the shouting, gave a startled cry. "Safiya!"
The girl with gray eyes turned, and gave a strange sort of smile. It was almost sad. The baker hustled over.
"Is this girl yours?" Anandi's father, Mahavira, asked.
"Oh no, sir, not mine." the baker shook his head. "She has no parents."
"No parents?" Anandi's mother, Angelique, frowned.
"She wandered into town a few nights ago, half-starved. She only fully recovered yesterday."
"And what exactly is she doing running about when she was so recently ill? And for that matter, how was she able to recover so easily?"
The baker looked uneasy. "Well, you see, sir, this girl is….different."
"It is hard to explain, sir. She's…well, look at her."
They all did so, and Safiya looked back calmly. Then clouds suddenly parted, shooting down bright beams of sunlight. Safiya flinched as one landed on her, shielding her eyes, and backing up into the shadow of the building.
Anandi's parents frowned slightly at this strange behavior, but then turned away.
"It matters not." Angelique said in a dismissive tone. "We must return to our estate now. Farewell." With that, she turned away, bringing Anandi with her as Anandi's father followed behind.
Anandi had twisted in her mother's grip to see Safiya come after them.
"I need to come." the girl had said.
"Pardon?" Angelique said, frowning again.
"I need to go with you." Her eyes had focused on Anandi. "With her."
Angelique had snorted, turning again to leave. "Ridiculous."
"She's in danger!" Safiya exclaimed anxiously, displaying emotion for the first time. "I can protect her!"
Mahavira and Angelique then looked at the girl with confusion mixed with suspicion. "How do you know this?" Mahavira demanded.
"Please, sir." The baker had come forward. "When she first wandered into town and collapsed, she seemed almost delirious, going on about danger and darkness. And needing to find a girl with 'eyes like emeralds', as she put it. And begging your pardon, little miss," he said directly to Anandi "but your eyes are very green."
There was a long moment of silence, and then her parents were talking in low anxious voices to each other, too low for her to hear, though the other girl Safiya tilted her head slightly, and the expression on her face made it seem as though she could hear the whispered conversation. Then Anandi had suddenly felt a strange rushing sensation and toppled forward onto the ground, blackness swarming her vision.
She didn't remember anything after that until she woke up several hours later, back home at the oasis mansion. When she'd opened her eyes, Safiya had been there. And she'd stayed at Anandi's side ever since, no matter what happened. Even after their home had been breached, the other guards slaughtered, and her parents and uncle murdered, Safiya had stayed.
Looking at her friend now, Anandi still wondered why Safiya was so compelled to guard her. It wasn't something they ever really talked about, Safiya focusing more on keeping her safe from danger than why she was doing so. There was also the matter of what Safiya said to Anandi's parents after their daughter had collapsed. Whatever it had been, it must have been very convincing.
"That's the letter from the school?" Safiya asked quietly, pulling Anandi out of her long moment of reflection.
"Yeah. They're letting us attend for free. School starts on September 20th, and we need to fill out these forms." She held out a stapled packer of paperwork identical to her own.
Safiya took it with a sigh and sat down on the bed next to her friend. "I don't really like paperwork."
Anandi couldn't help but grin a little. "I've noticed. The last bit of paperwork you had to fill out mysteriously found it's way to a very thorough paper shredder."
"It slipped out of my hand at an inopportune moment." Safiya said innocently.
"So, the twentieth?" Safiya confirmed, flipping through her paperwork.
"Lots of interesting things have happened on the twentieth of September. The Great Prussian Uprising started on September 20th."
"When was this?"
"1250. There's also the Treaty of Ryswick. Signed by France, Spain, England, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Dutch Republic to end the Nine Year's War. That was in 1697, though." she added.
Anandi raised her eyebrows. "Relevant?"
Safiya shrugged. "Not particularly. But it is interesting."
Anandi just shook her head. Her friend's interest in random historic facts baffled her, as did where she learned them. The first few times Safiya had spouted such bits of information, Anandi had simply assumed she wasn't saying anything true (this reasoning of course based upon the fact they'd both been twelve at the time and twelve year-olds generally don't recite facts about how Emperor Charles IV assisted in laying the foundation stone of Charles Bridge in Prague on July 9th in the year 1357). Eventually though she'd grown curious despite herself, and had looked up some of Safiya's facts, only to find them very true and as far as she could tell, quite accurate. Which of course led to the puzzling question of where on earth she learned them. A question which Anandi had yet to answer in full, knowing only that Safiya now supplemented her knowledge with books she picked up at small family-owned bookstores.
"Well," Anandi continued, "interesting facts aside, what do you think? About this?" She held up the letter.
"May I?" Safiya asked politely, pointing to the letter.
Anandi handed it to her.
Safiya read it over twice, flipped it over, then back, and read it again.
"Well?" Anandi demanded after a long moment of silence.
"It's very straightforward." Safiya said. "What a bold woman."
"Safiya." Anandi said, exasperated. "I don't care what she's like."
Safiya looked at her seriously. "You should. Empress Wu Zetian was very well-educated and one of the most powerful women Chinese history. She's also considered to have been very ruthless."
"You're not seriously telling me to beware the principal on some comparison to some dead empress, are you?"
"I'm just telling you to be cautious, Anandi." Safiya said patiently. "I can't always be there."
That made her feel suddenly anxious. "What are you talking about? We were both accepted and -"
"We won't have all the same classes." Safiya said reasonably.
Anandi remained silent. That hadn't occurred to her. Having been home schooled by her parents until their deaths, and on the run since then, she wasn't entirely familiar with the system of actual schools, public or private, and she'd never given much thought to how the logistics worked. Safiya had of course, despite being in a similar situation.
"Don't worry about that sort of thing." Safiya said, guessing Anandi's train of thought. "That's what I'm here for. I can see the things you don't." Her voice sounded strange on the last sentence, but when Anandi turned to look at her, Safiya just smiled. "Don't worry." she repeated.
After a moment Anandi relaxed and smiled at her friend. "You're amazing."
Safiya shrugged. "Not really."
"No, you are. Seriously. But," she said with a grin, "that's to be expected, being a vampire and all."
Safiya groaned. "Not that again!"
"You never specifically said you weren't." Anandi pointed out.
"Because I didn't think you were stupid enough to entertain such an idea for this long."
"Well, come on the, tell me I'm wrong."
"You're very, very wrong." Safiya said sternly.
Anandi sighed. "But you are different."
Safiya threw her hands up. "I've always been different."
"You can see better, smell better, hear better, move faster, hit harder. You're stronger than anyone your size has any right to be."
"I'm not that short!"
"5'3's fairly short by modern standards."
"You also don't like the sun." she added.
"That's just because it's very bright." Safiya pointed out. "My eyesight is much better than a normal person's, but that also means my eyes are much more sensitive. Bright light can hurt. Same with my other senses. Walking in the herbs and spices aisle at the grocery store? Very overwhelming. Coffee too"
"That's why you don't drink it?" Anandi said, surprised.
"That, and it tastes disgusting." She made a face and Anandi laughed.
"I'm surprised you can't make yourself drink it. The caffeine would help, wouldn't it?" This was something Anandi knew for certain, that her friend's enhanced abilities required more energy than a normal person's, particularly if she was doing something physically trying.
Safiya was about to answer when suddenly the sharp sound of the phone ringing cut her off. A guarded look came over her face as she went out the door and down the hallway to where the phone was.
Anandi slowly followed her friend, and waited a few feet away.
"Yes, I understand."
She could vaguely hear a man's voice on the other end.
"Yes, I'll mail in the bill first thing tomorrow, don't worry."
More garbled talking. Safiya scowled suddenly, and her voice dropped from politely warm to somewhat chilly.
"I'll keep that in mind. Thank you." She hung up before the man could respond. "That was a man from the cable company. He says we're a week late paying our bill."
Safiya shrugged. "Probably. I haven't paid much attention to be honest."
"Safiya! This isn't a good start for our stay here." This was their first attempt at actually living in one house for an extended period of time. They'd just moved in a little over two months ago (if you could technically call it moving when everything you had was stuffed into two duffel bags and a small suitcase and when you weren't actually leaving another place of residence. Assuming motels didn't count, that is.) and had just set up all the basic services at the end of last month. Phone service, cable TV, water, heat, gas, electric, the works. And now it was the middle of August and already they were behind on a bill?
"Why didn't you just pay it when it came in?" Anandi demanded. "It's not like we don't have the money." Anandi still had a considerable fortune, most of which she had transferred into a secure anonymous bank account that only she and Safiya had access to.
Safiya still seemed unconcerned. "I just forgot, that's all. Like I said, I'll pay it tomorrow. "
"Seriously, though, vampire? That's the best you can do?"
Anandi frowned in puzzlement, then recalled their conversation before the phone call. "Oh, that. Well, I…"
"I don't even drink blood! Isn't that the important part of the whole vampire thing, too?"
Anandi grinned sheepishly. "I guess."
"Indeed you do. Guess, that is." Safiya paused a moment, looking thoughtful. "Then again," she continued, "maybe you're not entirely off-base."
"You're a vampire?"
"No, not me. Silly. But maybe…." she frowned. "I can't quite remember."
Safiya shook her head suddenly. "No, it's nothing. Never mind. It's not important right now."
"What's not important right now?" Anandi asked, feeling as though she had lost her understanding of the conversation.
"Never mind." Safiya said. "Like I said, it doesn't matter."
"You're being evasive." Anandi accused.
"Very." Safiya admitted. "But it's for your own good."
"I don't see how your keeping secrets is for my own good." she mumbled as Safiya ushered her back to her room where the paperwork was waiting.
"These secrets won't help you right now. You'll only be confused and upset."
"Because you're a vampire?" Anandi teased.
Safiya gave an aggrieved sigh like a highly learned scholar forced to bear too much idiocy at once.
Anandi laughed and sat back down on her bed, picking up her own paperwork. "What're our last names here, again?"
"Yours is Johnson."
"That's boring. And generic."
"What's yours then?"
"We're not supposed to stand out Anandi, you know that. I'd have us put false first names too, but we'd slip up eventually, and that would just complicate things in the end."
"You've really given this a lot of thought." Anandi said, awed.
"Of course." Safiya said simply.
They continued filling out their paperwork, eventually stopping when the bedside clock read 6:30pm.
"It's been an hour?" Safiya exclaimed. "We're not even halfway done!"
"This paperwork is ridiculous." Anandi agreed, glowering at the stack. "I'm surprised all this even fit in the envelope."
"It's like I said before. The principal is an evil mastermind. Conniving and cruel. You hungry?" she added.
"I'll go make dinner, then."
"You want some help?"
"No, I've got it. You finish your paperwork."
Leaving Anandi's room, Safiya felt both relaxed and extremely tense. She knew the house was very safe, so she could be at ease here, but the thought of attending a school, even a private one, made her unspeakably anxious. Not only was it a new environment, it was one they'd be staying in for at least the duration of the school year, if all went well. They'd never stayed in one place for more than a week or two, and the prospect of spending ten months in one place was horrifying. The potential risks and dangers to Anandi mounted the longer they stayed in one place, and while they hadn't been followed here by the people chasing them, the threat against Anandi was still very much real and if they found her at school while she wasn't there…..She shuddered. She couldn't let that happen. They must not get her.
"I have to protect her." she whispered to herself. It was her mantra, her innermost reason for everything. Her reasons for needing to protect Anandi would be hard to explain to her friend if the time ever came. Safiya wasn't sure she understood entirely herself, having learned all she knew about it when she was very small. She'd spent almost a month wandering before she'd arrived at that little desert town, almost half-dead with exhaustion. In all honesty, if she weren't so 'different' as Anandi put it, she more than likely wouldn't have survived such a trek through the desert, from her own home to the village where she met Anandi.
Frowning slightly, she pushed those thoughts aside, instead focusing on making dinner. Which, truthfully, was something she needed her full attention for, since she wasn't at all good at cooking. Normally Anandi took care of their meals, but Safiya didn't want her to have to do all the cooking so she volunteered every couple days. And almost always regretted it as soon as she looked through the cupboards and ended up with tons of ingredients and no idea what they could make.
Now she sat staring at a refrigerator full of the groceries they'd purchased just the other day. She briefly entertained the idea of just dumping a bunch of things into a stew pot like in the children's storybook, but decided against. Instead she opted for the simple path of spaghetti, something both she and Anandi loved. Even she could cook pasta. She could even make a salad for the side dish. It was all small steps, cooking.
About half an hour later, Safiya felt oddly satisfied as she viewed the table all set up with silverware and place mats. She cheerfully doled out appropriate portions of salad and spaghetti to the plates, poured two glasses of milk and went to fetch her friend.
"I finished dinner!" she announced, entering the room.
Anandi looked up from a green sheet titled "Library Check-Out Policy". "What're we having?"
"Spaghetti. And salad." she added.
Anandi looked pleased. "Yum. Thanks for cooking."
Safiya shrugged, but couldn't help but smile. "It wasn't really cooking. Take water, boil water, add noodles, let cook, get rid of water, cook sauce. And so on."
Laughing, Anandi put down her paperwork and followed Safiya to the kitchen table where they sat eating until they could see through the window that the sun had disappeared below the horizon.