BUDAPEST, HUNGARY—HEROES’ SQUARE
I did not plan at first to record my memories of the last time I saw Gisele in Budapest. I had wanted to tell only of Churchill’s brave letter to me, his admonition that I turn my sights to the East, where all of us hunted a superweapon that could end the war.
But I find that I cannot soldier on, and write my tale of battle and blood without starting it with my little sister’s farewell. I cannot begin my tale in the East before ending the one in Budapest, the home I had to leave behind. And so I tell you how we said good-bye.
* * *
The angel Gabriel towered over our heads, his sightless marble eyes gazing over Budapest. It was a glorious fall afternoon, but Heroes’ Square was deserted.
My little sister Gisele gazed up at the gigantic statue perched upon his narrow Doric column. “I’m going to miss that fellow,” she said, trying for a joke, but her voice was filled with such a sad finality that she all but broke my heart.
“Forget the angel, I’m going to miss you,” I forced out. “We’ve said good-bye too many times.”
“This won’t be the last time,” she replied. Gisele’s voice sounded faint and far away, as if she spoke from another world.
It was, I realized with foreboding, her voice of prophecy.
A chill wind blew through my thin cotton suit and I shivered. The cold made me think of Gisele’s impending journey, so far away. Into the terrible cold …
“Raziel and Knox should arrive at any moment,” I said. “The trip to England is long, and it is freezing on the plane, mouse. Make sure you bundle up. You always forget your jacket.”
“I can hardly feel a thing, Magduska. I already feel … gone.”
I peeked at Gisele out of the corner of my eye, bracing myself for her tears. My little sister cried rivers over little hurts, things it was safe to cry about.
Her eyes were bone-dry now.
She began pacing the perimeter of the enormous paved square, and I trailed behind her like a silent shadow. The heroes of Hungary past posed before us, frozen statues preserved like mastodons in ice. The marble Gabriel presided over the fossilized heroes.
“I’ve never been the one left behind,” I said, just for something to say. I did my best to keep my voice light, but I had to clear my throat to speak, it was so tight. “It’s always been me bounding into the unknown, leaving you and Eva to fend for yourselves.”
Gisele winced at Eva’s name. “Poor Evuska,” she whispered. “Look out for her if you can, Magda. She is in terrible, terrible danger.”
Eva had become a partisan for the Hashomer, going undercover to spy on the local Fascists. She had chosen her mission over our life together, and I for one was grateful. As she was a spy, Eva’s life was in constant danger. But still I hoped that Eva would outwit our enemies and emerge victorious at the end of the war. Like a cat, Eva had always landed on her pretty feet. And I had to believe that this war would end someday.
The time for watching over Eva was done. I still had Gisele to protect if I could. But the danger—for Gisele, and for all of us—kept changing and growing, faster than I could match it. I didn’t need Gisele’s gift of prophecy to see we stood in death’s shadow.
Gisele and I, and my darling Raziel, too, had cheated death for a solid month, escaping from Poland and somehow making it out of that Nazi war zone alive. But who knew how long our luck could hold? Or Eva’s, either?
I said nothing about that. There was no point in troubling my little mouse even more than the circumstances demanded.
Gisele picked up speed in her progress around the statues. The wind picked up, too, sending a rolling cascade of dead leaves dancing a tarantella around our ankles.
I shivered again, and chased after her, to both warm my blood and cheer her up. “Nineteen thirty-nine is almost over, mouse. And we’re still alive, despite the Witch’s prophecy. Nineteen forty has got to be better than this.”
Gisele stopped walking, faced me. She shook her head and laughed—a mournful little sound. Her gaze pierced me straight though the heart. “Sweetheart,” she said, suddenly sounding older than me, “we might well all be dead by nineteen forty, despite our luck so far.”
I knew she was right, that the ancient Witch of Ein Dor herself had warned us when we had summoned her through séance to appear in our parlor. But I couldn’t admit the truth aloud, as if speaking my fears would bring them into being. Besides, I didn’t want a deeper shadow over Gisele’s journey to the West.
“You’ll be safe as can be in England,” I said, more to reassure myself than anything else. “Winston Churchill himself will be looking after you.”
Gisele blushed at the mention of the great man’s name. “That may not be enough, not even the great Churchill’s protection. But I’ll go. I promised you I would.”
I steeled myself against the misery in her voice, reached for her hands, and looked her right in the eye. “I can take you there myself, my dear, if that will make it easier. Nothing matters more. I’ll go with you to London and settle you, pretty as you please. And Raziel will come with us, too.”
For the first time a flash of tears sparkled in her eyes, burnishing their brown almost into gold with that trapped light. The wind caressed her hair like a mother’s gentle hand.
“No,” she said, her voice sounding offended. “There’s no time for coddling me. You’ve got to keep fighting now—it’s war.”
I hated to admit it, but she was right. We both had our parts to play. I had almost killed Hitler in our last encounter at the Wolf’s Lair in Prussia. But he had recovered from his wounds and regained his strength. No matter how physically maimed, the Führer would not wait long before striking Europe again. Especially since his demon, Asmodel, goaded him incessantly to the attack.
But the thought of Gisele alone in a strange country, unable to make her way, made me half-frantic with worry. “Nonsense. I’ll get you settled quickly, my dear, and then I can go east with an undivided heart.”
She shrugged and sighed. “It’s no use, Magduska, you’ll have to fight with a shattered heart,” she said, and turned her face away from me. “Today is another day for good-bye.”
I hugged her close so that she couldn’t see the tears escaping from my own eyes. “You were always the brave one,” I said, careful to keep my voice from wavering. “I’ll go east, you go west. I’ll stop Hitler for good somehow, I swear it, or die trying. And I’ll see you through; Eva, too.”
It was my old promise to protect them, the promise I had first made after my mother had died, years before the war began. And I had repeated it to Gisele a hundred times or more over the last few, terrible years, as if it were an Indian swami’s magical mantra. As if saying it a hundred times aloud would somehow make it come true.
It was the promise I had renewed to her, every day since the war had come. Gisele’s awful visions had haunted us, and Eva, too, our dearest friend and sister of the heart.
But this time, Gisele stiffened in my arms as I recited my old promise.
I hugged her harder, and swallowed the bitter tears. “I swear it!” I whispered fiercely. “I swear it on my soul!”
She hugged me back then, and for a few minutes neither of us could say a word. I silently vowed to remember the feel of her in my arms, little and round, the sweet smell of her hair, the sound of her husky little voice.
Oh, she used to laugh, my Gisele, but I hadn’t heard her really laugh in over a year. How I loved her, even burdened with her visions, even in despair.
Her jacket was scratchy under my fingertips. I kissed her cheek, tasted the salt of her tears. “I’m sorry you have to go so far away,” I said.
She pulled back, still wrapped in my arms, her smile watery. “I’m crying for you, my poor Magduska. Your road ahead is long and hard. My poor sister.”
I drew myself up to my full height, head and shoulders over Gisele. “I am a Lazarus, an eldest daughter. I mean what I swear—I will protect you! And I will never take it back. Never.”
She chuckled at me, her sad little mourning dove song instead of one of her old easy belly laughs. “You are so fierce! I am not a dragon, you don’t need to roar at me. I’m just your little mouse.”
Before I could reply, a sleek black Mercedes limousine pulled up around the circular drive at the edge of Heroes’ Square. Autos were not ordinarily allowed along the square on the weekends, but my dear Count Gabor Bathory, vampire lord of Budapest and my employer, enjoyed some special dispensations from the Hungarian government. And now, as the new Chief Vampire of the Budapest Vampirrat, he could expect even more deference, from both the human denizens of the city and the magical.
The sky seemed to darken as the limousine pulled closer. Knox and Raziel sat together in the backseat; Janos, Bathory’s molelike driver, sat silently behind the wheel. With the limousine’s engine still humming, Raziel shook Knox’s hand and emerged from the backseat.
Knox, Churchill’s spymaster, looked at me and nodded. And for only a moment, I saw it. A death’s-head, superimposed over the man’s bland, rounded American features.
I started, rubbed hard at my eyes, and just like that the image of death’s angel had disappeared. But a shadow remained over Knox’s face. I tore my gaze away, blinded my second sight. Death ruled over everything in 1939. Gisele was in no more danger with Knox than she was with me.
“Okay, Gisi, this is it,” I said, keeping my voice light. I couldn’t fall apart in front of her. “Not even a valise for you to pack—it’s a pleasure to travel light, you will see. Go now, there’s a good girl. Don’t look back. Good journey, and write to me when you can, sweetheart.”
Her tears had also vanished. She leaned in and kissed me on both cheeks, then reached for my hands and kissed them, first on the knuckles and once on each palm.
She folded my hands over the kisses. “These are some extra kisses for when you need them. God bless you, Magduska.”
And before I could say another word, she slipped into the open door of the limousine, the door closed, and they hushed away along the cobblestones, Knox and Gisele now in the backseat. Raziel put a strong arm across my shoulders and squeezed me hard as we watched the shiny black Mercedes slip away.
When he saw the condition I was in Raziel wanted to call me a taxi, but I waved him away. Better to walk the pain away if I could.
As the light failed we walked across Budapest, all the way to the river, past the gigantic Parliament building as we watched the sun set behind the Buda hills.
After all of our travails in wartime Poland, losing Gisele now would be almost more than I could stand.
“She’s safer in England,” Raziel said, his voice smooth. Gently, he chucked me under my chin and smiled, one of his irresistible, lopsided smiles. His gentle strength poured into me, but it just wasn’t enough. “We made this plan for a reason, you know,” he said.
“I do know,” I whispered, my voice hoarse. “I can’t understand why I’m being such a baby.”
“Knox will take care of her,” Raziel said.
I could only laugh when he said it. Knox, Churchill’s spymaster, had a job to do, just as we did. His mission was to get Gisele to England, not to protect her from all harm. Nobody could do that—not even, though it hurt me to admit it, me.
The sun continued its descent, and the Danube below us flowed like molten gold. “It’s a luxury you have, to be sad that Gisele has gone away, even if it is for her safety,” Raziel said, and his almost unbearable kindness sent me over the edge. “So go ahead and grieve the separation, drop the burden for a bit. Then back we go, into the fight.”
I nodded miserably. The wind gusted up from the river, cleared my head a little. “So Gisele’s out of harm’s way. And so are we, for the moment. Bathory has prevailed.”
Raziel’s eyes darkened as he studied the hills beyond the river. “For now. His enemies are formidable. It’s something of a marvel he won, to be honest.”
“He’s going to want me in Budapest, to stay.”
“Maybe. But if he’s done so well without the need of you, he will most likely accept your leaving Budapest again, to fight the Nazis some more. After all, Bathory is a patriot.”
The Budapest sarcasm in his voice could have come from a native. My beloved Raziel had fallen far from Heaven, indeed. But I was selfish, I was glad he had fallen. I loved him so much as a man.
“Patriot or not, Bathory’s a pragmatic creature. He’ll want me to serve as his assistant as I used to. But it’s too late for that now.”
I wasn’t the girl I had been when I had started out on my journey west, in search of my family’s inheritance, bound into an ancient book called The Book of Raziel. I had found a version of it, and it had been subverted by the Nazis into a terrible, evil source of magical power. Only the original of the Book, a primordial gem called the Heaven Sapphire, could overrule the Nazi perversion.
Raziel and I had sworn to hunt the sapphire in the place where we believed it was hidden. Hitler’s demon, Asmodel, lusted after the sapphire, and if we didn’t find it first, he would claim it for his own.
It was because of the hunt for the sapphire that I sent Gisele away. I could not both chase the gem and protect her. The war had decided for us: the gem came first. And not even the specter of death itself could stay either of us from our separate paths.
I wrenched myself from thoughts of my sister, to thoughts of my husband, my man, Raziel. “We’re going to have to tell Bathory about us,” I said to change the subject. I couldn’t bear to think about Gisele anymore.
Raziel smiled at that; he saw right through me. “He won’t mind that I didn’t ask for your hand, you know. He’s your boss, not your father.”
I didn’t blush often anymore, but I knew that I was blushing now. “Former boss.”
“You can’t quit a job like you had with him.”
As usual, Raziel was right, but that didn’t make it easier to accept. I could not simply untie my loyalties to Bathory, or to Gisele, and coldly slip away. Alas, I was no vampire, and though a witch, I was all too imperfectly human.
My thoughts strayed again to Gisele, no matter how hard I tried to turn my mind to other subjects. Her plane had surely taken off for London by now. “Gisele was my mother’s favorite, that’s no secret. But I was my father’s. Papa. Did you meet in the second Heaven the day he died?”
Raziel’s smile was sad. Undoubtedly he was thinking of his all but eternal time as an angel, now past. He had sacrificed his wings to join the human fight against the Nazi menace on earth. Out loud, he insisted that our love made up for everything he had relinquished. In his heart of hearts I was not so sure he was telling the truth, to himself or to me.
But all he said was, “Your father was one of the finest men I ever met in the afterworld. I was your family’s guardian angel, but he did more to guard you than I could from up above.”
“Do you think Papa approves of us, from up above?” I was joking, mostly—Papa wanted only my happiness, and how could he object to a primordial angel of the Almighty?—but Raziel’s smile faded.
“I’m not an angel anymore. I earned my mortality in Krueger’s prison in Kraków, good and hard.”
I winced at that. “Krueger’s dead, my love, and we are still alive. We have to get the Heaven Sapphire, or all that we’ve done so far will be for nothing.”
“It’s lost,” Raziel said, his voice soft in thought. “I brought it first to the Garden of Eden, when the world was young. And long the daughters of Eve guarded the gem, until the First Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed. And now … who knows.”
I drew back and looked at my beloved. His thick dark hair rippled in the wind coming off the river, his hat clasped in his hands. All of us are ancient in a certain way, I suppose; we are sparks thrown off by the Maker of the world at the time of the creation.
But Raziel remembered. As a man he was new, raw, in a strange world he still hardly knew. But he remembered, all the way back.
He did not speak of it often and I respected him enough not to demand he reveal his secrets, not when they were so painful to remember. But just knowing he carried these secrets inside of him filled me with awe.
“Can I summon it out?” I asked.
“No,” Raziel replied. “Your magic is in words. This gem is invested with great power, but it is not translated into human or even angelic speech. It is pure.”
The thought of the gem, the Heaven Sapphire, in my hand made me shiver. With it, I could destroy my enemies. But I had been unable to capture the bespelled Book of Raziel from Hitler and Asmodel. What made me think I could master the gem itself?
It didn’t matter what I thought. I had sworn to Gisele and myself that I would do everything in my power to fight the evils arrayed against us and all of our kind, and no matter how slight the chance, I had to try.
And Raziel stood by my side. I might have lost the Book, lost my beloved sister, even lost my best friend, Eva, to the war. But Raziel, now my husband, walked with me.
Night had fallen over Budapest. Soon the vampires would be out, hunting, and though I walked under Bathory’s protection and could protect myself in any case, I had to get inside.
We had an impossible dream to pursue.
Copyright © 2013 by Michele Lang