Summer 1831, Vitebsk, Belarus
The streets were full of dying soldiers and smoldering rubble. Looters scurried from house to house, dragging sacks of food and silverware they'd scavenged from the ruins of the city. Cannons fired in the distance. The Russian armies had marched on to the next city, on to the next massacre. Ignoring the scent of blood everywhere, Princess Johanna Cantacuzene searched the bodies until she found him.
Her husband, the Koldun and former king of Poland, lay dead under another soldier's decapitated body. One of the Dekebristi had been trying to protect him. The vampire princess had no tears, only cold rage that shook her entire body. She would find her husband's killer and make him and his descendants pay for his crime. "Bogatyr!" she screamed. "Will you come for me as well? I do not fear death. And neither did he." She cradled Konstantin Pavlovich's body to her. Then, seething in her hatred for the supernatural knight protector of Russia who had killed his own brother, she chanted vile curses against the Romanovs.
Konstantin had given up his rights to the throne of Russia to marry Johanna, the Polish princess who was a blood drinker. His elder brother Tsar Alexander had declared him king of Poland as consolation. Konstantin had been perfectly happy with his new wife and his new kingdom. But when Alexander died, the throne of Russia went to the ambitious younger brother, Nicholas Pavlovich. Nicholas sent his armies to take Poland away from his older brother and return it to the Russian empire.
Johanna fumed. She wanted Konstantin to have not only Poland, but also to take back his rightful inheritance. She wanted him to rule all of Russia as well. But Nicholas the First had a necromancer mistress who used ancient dark magic of her own to invoke the bogatyr and defeat Konstantin and Johanna's forces. To protect her husband's life, Johanna had turned him into a blood drinker. But it would not be enough to save him.
The young tsar accused Konstantin of heresy and treason and ordered his own brother's death. The Polish people revolted against Nicholas the First and rallied behind Konstantin. But Konstantin was unable to defend them. Or himself. When the battle spilled over out of Poland into the rest of the Eastern Provinces, Konstantin Pavlovich at last confronted his brother in the muddy streets of Vitebsk.
Johanna attempted to help her husband as he flung ancient Slavic spells and incantations at the bogatyr. Her Dekebristi minions attacked the young tsar's troops mercilessly. But the young tsar's mistress had powers much stronger than those of the vampire princess. The necromancer cloaked the bogatyr with shadows and commanded the dead soldiers in the street to march against the Dekebristi. She imprisoned Johanna in the Graylands, the realm of the dead, with an ancient Egyptian spell, and Johanna was forced to watch helplessly as Konstantin fell to his brother's sword.
While trapped in the Graylands, Johanna stumbled across a very old and very angry Egyptian necromancer. She stole his spell book and made a devil's bargain that allowed her to return from the Graylands in an attempt to save Konstantin with the power of necromancy.
Princess Cantacuzene sought to bring Konstantin back to life by pouring her own blood into his mouth. But no amount of blood could restore him after his defeat at the hands of the bogatyr. Johanna had to use the blackest of black magics to bind his soul and keep it safe, using a ritual from the Egyptian's spell book and a relic she stole from her half sister, the Montenegrin queen Milena. But Johanna was not strong enough to bring her love back. After burying her husband's body in the Romanov crypt with his ancestors, she faked her own death and assumed the identity of a distant Cantacuzene cousin. She deceived the foolish Nicholas Pavlovich and gained control over the remaining blood drinkers who had not been exiled to Siberia. She hid in the heart of St. Petersburg with the stolen relic, the Talisman of Isis, slowly gathering other vampires loyal to her and waiting decades for her chance at revenge.
She waited for the day when she could restore her husband to the throne. She waited for the day when she could restore him to life.
August 1890, St. Petersburg, Russia
I stepped back from the dissecting table to push my hair out of my face. I'd been standing on my feet all day in the tiny, airless room, my hands digging meticulously through the entrails of cadavers. Sweat had plastered my thick cotton dress to my skin.
"Do you see the bronchiole tubes within the lungs?" Dr. Badmaev asked me, leaning over my shoulder.
"Yes," I answered. "What are these growths here?" I poked a grayish-pink mass with a dissecting needle.
"That shall be your assignment for tonight," the Tibetan doctor said. "I think we have done enough work for today, Duchess."
No one knew I was studying medicine with Dr. Badmaev, the Tibetan who treated the members of the Dark Court. I blushed with shame, remembering how I'd rejected his offer earlier in the year. And I'd finally accepted only because the tsar continued to refuse to let me leave the country to attend medical school in Zurich. He did not approve of women doctors. But it was imperative that I study medicine-now more than ever. The life of the boy I loved, Grand Duke George Alexandrovich, depended upon it.
Dr. Badmaev had proved to be a strict instructor. All the Latin and Greek I'd studied in the hopes of going to a proper medical school were useless. Studying Tibetan medicine meant reading ancient texts in Tibetan. So I had to learn from the doctor's lectures and hands-on practice. The doctor was an acquaintance of my father's and had helped me more than once before. He was very knowledgeable when it came to treating vampire bites. Unfortunately, he told me there was no way to cure the risen dead.
"Here, drink this," Dr. Badmaev said when I'd finished scrubbing my hands. He held a steaming cup of tea out toward me. "It will help purify your soul. You have been surrounded by death all day, and now you must cleanse yourself before returning to the living."
I took the tea gratefully. Badmaev knew my secrets. He knew that I was no stranger to death, and he was persistent in trying to help me understand my gift. Of course, I still did not think of necromancy as a gift. It did not save lives. It only created terrible creatures. And multitudes of problems.
The tea was smoky with a hint of lemon. "Verbena?" I guessed.
Dr. Badmaev's eyes twinkled. "Very good! And?"
"You have been studying the Materia Medica, haven't you?"
I smiled. He had gone to great trouble to translate a list of Tibetan herbs and their healing properties for me into Russian. I told him he should have his work published. My father would have been happy to carry this out if I asked. But Badmaev and I both knew my father would not approve of my secret studies. Even if Papa had defended my wanting to study medicine to Maman and the tsar.
Being a female student in a proper medical institution was scandalous enough. Studying Far Eastern medicine with a doctor, no matter how distinguished, who was attached to the Dark Court could only invite imperial wrath.
But I had had no choice. As long as there was a threat that the lich tsar Konstantin Pavlovich could return, I was in danger. Almost as much danger as Alexander the Third. The tsar needed me, the only necromancer in St. Petersburg, to perform the ritual that would allow him to fight the lich tsar. And the lich tsar's followers knew it. Hence, I was forbidden from leaving Russia. My dreams of studying at the University of Zurich had come to a grinding halt. And my family's palace was placed under the watch of imperial guards, the undead soldiers of the Order of St. Lazarus.
I finished my tea and went to gather my things. Dr. Badmaev stood. "Remember your meditations, Duchess. The cold light is still surrounding you."
I nodded. As a necromancer, the cold light would always surround me. It was the light of death, surrounding everyone. It grew brighter when one grew closer to death. The cold light could be manipulated by a necromancer, to either destroy or heal. Dr. Badmaev, in addition to teaching me practical Tibetan medicine, was also showing me how to shape cold light and use it in diagnosing patients. Most important of all, he was showing me how to stay sane when surrounded by so much death.
"But you can't see the cold light, can you?" I asked.
The Tibetan smiled kindly. "It is true. But while I am not a necromancer, by meditating and drinking sacred herbs, I can expand my senses and see the warm light that surrounds everyone."
"Also known as auras by the Europeans, I believe. A doctor's examination that only looks at the patient's physical body is not complete. Tibetan medicine examines body and soul." He put a fatherly hand on my shoulder. "We will finish our work on the lungs when you come back," he said.
"I cannot return before Wednesday," I said. "Tomorrow I'm expected to wait on the empress with Maman." The thought that I might possibly see the empress's son, George Alexandrovich, while I was there filled me with hope. George had completed his magic studies in Paris and had returned to St. Petersburg several days ago, but he had not been to Betskoi House to see me since his return. I knew a lot of his time would be taken up with imperial matters. He was now working with the Koldun to protect his father and the rest of the imperial family. I'd received several passionate letters from him during his stay in France, but what if his passion for me had cooled? Why hadn't he found the time to see me?
"The dissection table and I will be waiting," Dr. Badmaev said. "Do not forget your assignments."
"Of course not, Doctor." Hurrying through the herbal shop in front of his office, I gave a friendly wave to his housekeeper, Masha. It was a hot August day, much too hot for me to walk all the way to our house on Millionaya Street. I purchased a ride on one of the horse-drawn trams that sped through the city, knowing I would have to hop off shortly before reaching the Field of Mars. Maman would faint if she knew I mingled with the lower classes of St. Petersburg on such a regular basis. But I liked to sit on the tram and look at the faces of people, wondering who they were and where they were traveling. I tried to ignore the tangle of cold lights swirling over and around everyone on the cramped carriage.
An old, wrinkled babushka sat next to me holding a sleeping child. The child's cold light was stronger than the woman's; the child was closer to death than she. "Has the child been ill?" I asked.
"Da," the woman said sadly. "He refuses to eat or drink anything. His mother died last month from the same thing."
"Has he been seen by a doctor?" I asked.
"We cannot afford the doctor," the woman answered bitterly. "We still owe him for seeing my daughter. And he did nothing for her."
"Please go and see the Tibetan doctor on Betosky Prospekt," I said. "He will be able to tell you how to save your grandson. Without charge. Tell Dr. Badmaev to please send the bill to Duchess Oldenburg."
"Bless you, dear lady," the woman said, hugging her weak grandson to her chest.
We were fast approaching the Field of Mars, close to Betskoi House, so I pulled the string for the tram to slow down. The driver did not completely stop, so I had to jump. I landed awkwardly on the dusty street, then hurried home.
A Romanov carriage waited in our driveway. My heart danced for a moment, full of hope that it was George Alexandrovich. Racing past the footmen at our door, I hurried up the staircase into Maman's parlor, hoping to see the tsar's son. Instead, I found the leader of the St. Petersburg vampires, taking tea with my mother.
"Katerina Alexandrovna," Grand Duchess Militza said, her black eyes glittering, "I've been waiting for you, my dear."
I curtsied politely to the grand duchess, who was now my cousin by marriage. "Your Imperial Highness," I said. I had been under the assumption that the grand duchess was still in Montenegro visiting her family.
"Elena sends you her best wishes, cousin," Militza said. "And Danilo as well."
Would I never have any peace from the crown prince and his blood-drinking family? "I believed he was still in prison," I said coldly.
Her smile was brittle. "That was merely a misunderstanding," Militza said. "He is safe in Montenegro now with our parents."
"Isn't that wonderful, Katiya?" Maman asked. "Such a dear young man."
I did not think it was wonderful that Danilo was no longer imprisoned at the Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul. The crown prince and his faerie accomplice, Monsieur Sucre, had conspired against the members of the Order of St. John and the tsar's inner circle of mages. They had attempted a ritual to raise the lich tsar from the dead. I did not think even being a king's firstborn son would exonerate Danilo or convince our tsar to let him go free. I wondered what sort of diplomatic deal had been made.
The footman knocked on the door to tell Maman she was needed in the kitchen. "Of course," she said, standing hastily. "Please excuse me, both of you."
I had no desire to engage in further pleasantries with the blood drinker in Maman's parlor. "Why have you come, Militza?" I asked as soon as my mother was gone.
The grand duchess visibly relaxed. I'd grown used to my mother's new "gift," but as a striga, she made others around her extremely uncomfortable.
The effect she now had on other supernatural creatures was truly bizarre. When Maman entered a room, the cold light belonging to everyone else seemed to bend away from her. And the fact that strigas only drank the blood of other blood drinkers placed them at the top of the blood-drinker hierarchy. Every creature whose blood the striga tasted gave away a little bit of his or her power to her. Traditionally, the striga was the leader of a city's vampire population. And Militza was not inclined to give up her hard-won position willingly.