I finished my meal and sat there while Dad, still chuckling, washed the plate and put it in the drain rack. Apparently dishwashers weren’t in every kitchen here in Italy like they were in the U.S. I’d never noticed that when I was a little kid.
Finally, Dad sat back down.
“I believe you have more questions?”
“I do. So many, I don’t know where to start.” I pressed my hands to my temples, trying to organize my thoughts.
“First, when do I get my suitcase?”
“Tonight. I’ve sent someone for it already,” he said.
“Marc. One of my co-workers on the dig.”
That was easy enough. What else?
“How do you and Mom and the Corbetts and the Meyers know each other?” I asked. “Start at the beginning.”
“The beginning is a long time ago,” he said, looking at me seriously. “Because our association begins not with us, but with our parents. And really, even before them. But it’s time you know.”
He took a deep breath.
“About 500 years ago, the Velathri had nearly wiped out the Stregoni Benefici in Italy. Most of us had scattered, immigrating to other countries in Europe, or the U.S. and Canada. We didn’t dare live together in groups for fear of drawing attention to ourselves.
“One group of Stregoni Benefici was able to thrive. They had fled to Ireland, and remained safe for several generations. But eventually, the Velathri found them. In desperation, Fergus the Fierce, head of the Irish Stregoni Benefici, approached the Tuatha de Dannan and proposed a collaboration. An alliance, if you will.”
“Wait! Claire told me about the Tuatha de Dannan – she said they’re her cousins,” I interrupted.
“Yes,” Dad said. “They are. But I’ll get to that. Both groups called the Velathri enemies, although the Tuatha had never considered Stregoni Benefici allies. We were just more vampires to them. However, the Tuatha Council heard Fergus out, and agreed that a merger would be beneficial. The two groups began working together to contain the Velathri.”
He paused and took a sip of blood.
“Eventually, some vampires and Tuatha married. Your grandmother married your Uncle Alex’s father when she was young. But as you’ve seen, it’s difficult to maintain a relationship between two such disparate beings. Your grandmother and Alex’s father eventually divorced, and her second marriage was to a fellow Tuatha – your grandfather.”
“But what about the Garda? How do they fit in?” I asked.
“Some of the Tuatha rejected the treaty with the Stregoni. They retreated into the hidden areas of Ireland. Those who remained above ground, living among humans, began calling themselves Garda.
“Fergus and the Garda Council hoped there would be many Stregoni-Garda children born, strengthening the bond between the two groups. But so far, in 500 years, there have been only two. Your Uncle Alex, and you.”
“So why have I never met him before?”
“He was born 100 years before your mother, and raised in Europe,” Dad said. “Your mother was born after your grandparents left Europe for the U.S. Alex was an adult by then. He’s Claire’s husband, by the way.”
“What?!? …” So Claire was my aunt. I was beginning to get more than a little angry at my “best friend.” She’d kept so much from me. And I’d told her every thought in my head. Suddenly, I remembered Johan’s arms around me, and my reaction.
Which brought me to my next question.
“What about the Meyers?”
“They’re old friends of mine. They were already in Charleston when your mom and I married, and when we divorced, I asked them to keep an eye on the two of you,” he said. “Luckily, Juliana and your mom had become good friends during our marriage, and stayed friends after it ended.”
“How much does Johan know?” I asked.
“Oh, he knows everything,” Dad said. “He was raised in a vampire family. His parents had to teach him to blend in from the time he could talk.”
“He knows everything about ME?” I asked.
“I’m sure he does. Otherwise, how could he help his parents protect you?”
Oh, goody. Everyone knows everything except me. I was steaming now.
“Dad, I know you think you were doing the right thing by keeping this from me,” I said, trying to keep my voice from shaking. “But you really put me in a lot of danger. And now I’m playing catch-up while the Velathri try to keep me from turning 17.”
He had the good grace to look ashamed.
“I’m sorry, Mia Bella,” he said, trying to placate me by using my childhood nickname. “But your mother insisted. We didn’t know if you would become Garda or vampire, and she wanted you to have a normal childhood. At the time, it seemed like a good idea.”
“So tell me. How do I protect myself?”
“You spend the next two weeks inside the city walls, learning about your heritage.”
“Does that include learning how to fight?”
“Yes, it does, although your mother won’t like it.”
“Well, I don’t like having black bags put over my head at the airport and not having any way to defend myself,” I said. “What if Claire and my mom hadn’t been there?”
“But they were,” my dad said. “And now you’re here.”
I opened my mouth to argue, but yawned in spite of myself. I had so many more questions.
“Go to bed now. Your training begins tomorrow.”
I stood up, stretching. I was really tired. I leaned over and kissed Dad on top of his head.
“I’m sorry I got so mad. It’s just frustrating – and scary – to know so little,” I said.
He smiled. “I know. But that’s changing. Good night, Mia Bella.”
I fell asleep quickly, but my dreams kept me tossing and turning. I saw dark men in black capes creeping through underground passages. I saw my mother, glowing like Claire had outside of our house. And I saw my father, bleeding and lifeless on the floor of the wine cellar.
I sat up with a start. The sun was streaming through the white lacy curtains, and the smell of eggs and bacon drifted down the hall. My suitcase was lying open on top of the chest at the foot of my bed. Wonderful. Clean clothes. I shook my head, banishing the bad dreams from my mind.
I got up, pulling on shorts and a t-shirt. I ran a comb through my hair, pulling it into a pony tail. I didn’t know what one wore for vampire school, but I figured I needed to be comfortable for the fighting part. I tied my running shoes and walked down the hall to the kitchen.
Dad was putting a plate on the table.
“Eat up,” he smiled. “Your tutor will be here soon.”
As I swallowed the last bite, there was a knock at the door. I heard voices as Dad let the visitor in. I turned from putting my glass and dish in the sink to see the most beautiful man I’d ever laid eyes on walk into the kitchen. He was just a few years older than me, maybe 21 or 22, with dark hair and eyes and tan skin like mine. His face was narrow, with chiseled features, severe even. His profile would have been at home on a Roman coin.
He smiled, transforming his face. I tried to breathe.
“Katie, meet Marc, your tutor,” Dad said.
What? My tutor was a male model, not some old gray-bearded guy from one of Dad’s digs?
“Ciao, Katie,” the male model said. “I’m so pleased to meet you.”
“Um, hi,” I said, brilliantly.
I looked down. Marc was holding out a package. As my hands appeared to be glued to my sides, Dad took it and handed it to me.
“What is it?” I asked Dad, certain Marc had already decided I was mentally deficient.
“Your fighting clothes. Go change,” Dad said.
Fighting clothes? There were fighting clothes? Whatever, I thought, shrugging. I took the package to the small bedroom, closing the door behind me. Inside was a pair of black pants and a black shirt in some kind of stretchy material. Underneath them was a pair of black shoes that looked like cross-country track shoes without the cleats. I pulled on the pants and shirt. How had they known my size? The shoes fit, too.
I looked in the mirror. I no longer looked like an American teenager on vacation. I looked older. Mysterious. Even dangerous. So not me! I laughed, rolling my eyes at how silly it all seemed. Now it was time to see if Marc could actually make me dangerous. I certainly hoped so, as I really did want to live to see my 17 th birthday.
I walked out, joining my dad and Marc in the kitchen. Dad looked at me silently, a touch of sadness on his face.
“You look grown up, Katie,” he said. “Okay, you two. Off you go. I’ll be at the dig all day. Just let yourself in if you get back before I do. The door’s always open.”
I followed Marc out of the front door. I looked around curiously. I hadn’t been here since the summer I was 10, but it didn’t look like anything had changed. We turned right onto a narrow winding street that paralleled the city wall. The street was cobblestone, and the houses were small.
As we walked, the cobblestones gave way to pavement and the houses grew larger, going from two-story to three-story, while the yards grew smaller. All of them had window boxes full of geraniums. Even the tiniest yards were full of colorful flowers. Mothers pushed strollers toward the park in the center of town, and businessmen hurried by on their way to work.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“We usually practice at a facility outside of the city walls,” Marc said. “But as you can’t safely leave, I’ve gotten permission to use the school gym. It’s summer vacation and there are no classes right now. We can also use the library to help you learn the history of your people.”
More history. What happened to MY summer vacation? I sighed. At least I wouldn’t be tested on it. I hoped. Was there a written test to become a vampire?
We walked up the Corso, the main street leading to the city center. We stopped at a limestone building across from the park. We were proud of our history in Charleston, but 300 years is just a drop in the bucket to Montepulciano. The earliest settlement on the site was believed to date back to the 3rd Century B.C., built by an Etruscan king.
The original portion of the school building was at least 500 years old, although more modern wings had been added about 100 years ago, and a thoroughly modern gym sat out of sight at the other end of the wings, enclosing a grass courtyard where students could sit on benches under the trees to eat their lunches. Native limestone had been used to construct both old and new parts of the building, so ancient merged with modern without too much jarring of the senses.
I looked over at Marc’s perfect profile as we walked. I wondered if he was a vampire, or just one of my dad’s students. Or both.
“How long have you been in Montepulciano?” I asked, trying to make small talk. And get the answers to my questions.
“A few years,” Marc answered briefly.
“So you’re not just here for the dig, then,” I said.
“How long have you known my dad?”
“Since I was a teenager.”
Since he could be 20 and he could be 200, that didn’t tell me much. Jeez, it was like pulling teeth to get this guy to talk. I gave up and just concentrated on keeping up with his long strides.
It was a beautiful, sunny day. It wasn’t hot yet, but I could tell it would be. No one had looked twice at our black outfits – strange garb on a day like today, but maybe not in the home town of the Stregoni Benefici.
Marc led me toward the gym. He took out a key and unlocked a side door. Inside, it looked like any other school gym. There were locker rooms, bleachers, and basketball goals. To the side I could see a weight room, and another room with a padded floor and walls. Marc led me toward the room with the padding.
“Okay, now tell me what you know,” he said, turning toward me.
The guy really wasn’t much for small talk, it seemed. Or maybe he was just rude.
“Nothing. I run cross-country. I’m fast. But I don’t fight.”
“Okay,” he sighed. “So we start from the ground up.”
He went to a closet and pulled out masks, padded chest guards, and fencing swords.
“Oh!” I said. “I’ve taken fencing. My mother made me. I never thought of it as fighting, though. It was like ballet – something to keep me busy after school while she taught. I thought you meant karate or judo.”
“Good,” he said, looking relieved. “Because if you’re going to fight for your life, it’ll be easier if the basics are already in place. And just so you know, the Italian martial arts, or fencing, is much more ancient than karate or judo.”
I rolled my eyes. Another history lesson. And it appeared my mother hadn’t enrolled me in fencing classes just to keep me busy while she was teaching. I’d actually been learning “Italian martial arts.” Between the whole “Garda as best friend” thing and now this, I was seeing a side of her I hadn’t known existed. A secretive, calculating side.
Marc and I suited up and took our stances. I felt confident. I was good at fencing. Johan and I had taken lessons together, starting in first grade. And it was a good thing, because Mr. Hay, our instructor, had had to pair us because no one else was quick enough to spar with us.
Before I’d even finished bowing, my sword was flying across the room.
“Hey!” I said.
“Dispense with the niceties, Katie,” Marc said, handing me my weapon back. “We’re dealing in survival here, not a high school match.”
I stood on guard, watching him warily. Two seconds later, I was disarmed again. “Focus, Katie,” he said. “Stop thinking so much. Don’t analyze. Just move.”
Behind the mask and padded clothes, he looked just like Johan. That was it. I would pretend I was sparring with Johan, not male-model Marc. And I had never let Johan beat me.
I relaxed my shoulders and bent my knees slightly. When he came at me this time, I was ready for him.
“Better,” he said. “Keep going.”
An hour later, I had parried most of his lunges, made two of my own, and only been disarmed once more. I was sweating and panting when he called a halt to the lesson.
“Okay. I can work with this,” he said, pulling my ponytail playfully. “You may survive yet.”
“That’s not funny,” I said, giving him a worried look.
“I know,” he said, his face becoming serious. “But you’ve survived so far, just by using your brains. With a little more training, I think you’ll be okay. Now let’s get some lunch.”
We stashed the fencing gear in the closet, and walked to the town square. Marc led me to a café with outdoor tables, choosing one near the street.
“When’s the last time you were in Montepulciano?” he asked.
“The summer I was 10. Later that year my parents separated, so that was the last time we came to Italy as a family,” I said. “I didn’t realize how much I had missed it.”
“It’s your home,” Marc said. “It’s a part of you.”
“Charleston is my home. And Montepulciano isn’t the same without my grandparents.”
“Montepulciano has been your family’s home for centuries. And will remain so. Even with your grandparents gone, it is your true home.”
I looked at him. “I’m still having a hard time believing this,” I said.
“I know. But it is real. You are a vampire. Not just any vampire, but Stregoni Benefici.”
“But I don’t feel like it!” I said, frustration showing in my face.
“You will,” Marc replied, patting my hand.
“Who is this?” a woman’s voice said in Italian.
I looked up to see a beautiful woman with flowing red hair standing beside our table. She wore a green dress, impossibly high heels, and a haughty look on her face.
Marc stood up. “Natalia, this is Katie Fiero, Tony’s daughter,” he said in English. “Katie, Natalia.”
I smiled and nodded. She glanced at me with the same expression on her face that I had when I found a roach in my bedroom in Charleston, and turned back to Marc.
“Ah, the daughter of my dear Anthony. The mysterious Katherine.” She continued to speak in Italian. I narrowed my eyes. Now how did she know my full name? And why did she call Dad “my dear Anthony?”
“I’m training Katie,” Marc said, switching to Italian. “Join us for lunch?”
“No, dearest, I must watch my figure. Although I am dying to know Katherine better,” she said, turning cold eyes on me.
I smiled, replying in Italian, “I would love that. Come over some evening. I’d love to hear how you know my dad.”
“Oh, you speak Italian,” she said. “I didn’t expect that!”
“I am Italian,” I replied, my voice as artificially friendly as hers.
Marc snickered, hiding it with a cough. He sat back down and the woman in green waved good-bye as the waiter came over to take our orders. I wondered how she could navigate the cobblestones in those heels, much less make it look easy.
“Who was that?” I asked after we’d ordered. “What a witch.”
Marc laughed out loud this time.
“Wait. You mean she really IS a witch?” I said.
“Yes, she is,” he said, wiping his eyes.
Why was everything I said so humorous to the people around me? I was getting tired of this.
“And what, exactly, does that mean?” I said, glaring at Marc.
“Well, it means you can’t trust her,” He said. “Even if she helps you, the help will come with a price.”
“Like a book that disappears and reappears in a different place?”
“Yes, exactly like that,” he said, his smile disappearing. “What book?”
Uh-oh. Should I answer that? I barely knew him. What should I do? Make something up?
Marc sat silently while these thoughts ran through my mind. My face must have shown my indecision.
“Um, no book in particular. Just an example.”
Whoa. The smile turned handsome into stunning.
“You can trust me, you know,” he said.
“How do I know that?”
“For one, your dad trusts me.”
I nodded, giving him that.
“And for another, your grandparents raised me.”
I looked at him, my eyebrows raised.
“You aren’t some uncle or cousin I didn’t know about, are you?” I asked suspiciously.
“No, I’m not related to you. Your grandparents raised me after my parents were killed by the Velathri,” he said. “So I have two reasons to keep you safe. The debt I owe your grandparents, and the revenge I owe the Velathri.”
“I understand the debt part. But I don’t get the revenge part,” I said.
“There is a prediction. A prophecy if you will. That the child of a Stregoni Benefici and a Garda will end the Velathri’s rule. Why do you think only two of you survive?”
“My dad said only two of us were born,” I said.
Marc looked down, thinking. Speaking carefully, he said, “I’m going to tell you the truth. Your dad was trying to protect you. But the time of protection is past. It’s time for you to know everything. More have been born. But the Velathri have killed all except two – Alex and you.”
“Why?” I whispered.
“Alex, because your grandmother successfully kept him hidden in Ireland until he turned 17. But he became a Garda. He is not the one, and so they leave him alone. You? Because your parents were successful in keeping your full parentage a secret. Until yesterday, the Velathri thought your mother was human, and that you would remain human when you turned 17. But now, they know differently.”
“No. Why did they kill the other children?”
“Because they have ruled for millennia, and plan to continue. Power. Control. It’s that simple.”
I cleared my throat. “How?”
It seemed I could only speak in single words. But he understood what I meant.
“Your mother fought alongside Claire at the airport to contain the man who tried to abduct you. When she did that, she showed what she really is,” Marc said. “She did it to keep you safe, if that makes a difference. Everything your parents have done was to keep you safe.”
I took a deep breath. I was supposed to be the answer to a prophecy. About vampires. Really? Up until three days ago, I’d thought I was just a regular teenage girl, looking forward to summer break and a pedicure with her best friend.
“So, what book?” he said, leaning forward and taking my hand.
“Okay, you trusted me with the truth. I’ll trust you. My dad has found two books during his excavations over the years,” I said. “I have one of them with me. Rulers of Ireland.”
Marc drew in his breath. “And the other?”
“Adam and Ariel have it.”
“Garda,” he said.
“Yes. It was given to the Garda for safe-keeping. They’re bringing it to Montepulciano,” I said.
“You believe this.”
“Yes, of course. Why wouldn’t I?”
“Because the Garda don’t completely trust us. And we don’t completely trust them.”
Supernatural politics. I was finally beginning to understand what William, the book-selling werewolf, had been talking about.
“But Claire is my best friend!”
“No, she is an ancient being who protects others. And who does not trust vampires,” Marc said.
“So why did she protect me?” I asked, indignantly.
“Because you are half Garda. Because you are her niece. And because she was ordered to.”
“I don’t believe you,” I said, pulling my hand away and folding my arms across my chest. But I did believe him. I knew he was right. I just didn’t want to admit it.
We didn’t speak as the waiter arrived with our food. We ate in silence, not meeting each other’s eyes.
Finally, Marc spoke again.
“Katie, I know this is hard. Your parents have kept you wrapped in a soft cocoon, safe from unpleasantness. The truth is hard. And sometimes difficult. But it is the truth. I promised your grandparents I would keep you safe. And I don’t believe that keeping you ignorant keeps you safe.”
“So how did my grandparents die?”
At some point in the past few days, I’d realized that my father’s parents hadn’t died of old age. Not if they were vampires.
“The Velathri. They wanted to know where you were. That’s why your parents divorced. After your grandparents were killed, your dad realized he needed to distance himself from you and your mother to take the focus off of you. The Velathri were convinced. If he was willing to leave you, then you couldn’t possibly be important.”
I looked at him. Suddenly he was a lot more talkative, and I really didn’t like what he had to say.
“Don’t pull your punches,” I said.
“Katie, I need to know what you’re made of,” he said. “If you can’t take it, then you might as well just walk outside of the city walls and let the Velathri kill you right now.”
“That reminds me. Where are the city walls?”
“A portion of them are still there, but most of the original walls have been torn down. You need to know where the old walls were, and not cross that boundary.”
“Gee, thanks for telling me.”
“I thought your dad would have told you that,” Marc said.
“No, he’s told me very little.”
“I can tell. I’m afraid both of your parents still see you as a little girl. I’ll walk you around the boundary on our way back.”
“Growing up fast here,” I said.
“Good,” he replied. “Now let’s go to the library.”