Home > The Unfailing Light (Katerina #2)(10)

The Unfailing Light (Katerina #2)(10)
Author: Robin Bridges

Elena stopped pacing and sat down again on her cot. "I'm saying there is something not right about her. She is always watching me. Judging me, as if she knows my secrets. She knows and she is not afraid."

"Are you certain?" It occurred to me now that Princess Alix had often looked at me in a similar fashion. "How could she know our secrets if she was not ... unnatural as well?" I could not believe Elena had become my confidante.

Elena shrugged. "We must be on our guard around her. Perhaps we can find out more about her and her family."

Besides the fact that she came from Germany and her sister was married to one of the tsar's brothers, I knew little about Princess Alix. I'd been invited on an ice-skating outing with her and her sister and the imperial children last winter, but she'd been very shy. I knew she did not speak much French or Russian, but spoke fluent English. She was also secretly in love with the tsarevitch.

My own undead creature, Count Chermenensky, had called her a monster, I remembered. The memory of the day I'd met the undead count made me blink back angry tears. Why had he reacted so strangely to Princess Alix? She was not a ghoul like the count. Whatever she was, surely she was not a danger to any of us, trapped behind the empress's spell.

I woke up that night to hear Elena restless and muttering in her sleep. Her moaning did not wake Aurora or Alix, thankfully. The silvery light of the full moon brightened up our room, and I snuggled down deeper in my blankets, glad that she was not able to turn into a moth. I worried, though, what would happen to her without a transformation. Would she still need to get blood in her human form? Would she seek it from one of her roommates?

"The veshtizas are not true vampires, as the Vladiki are." Again, the crown prince's thoughts floated into my head strong and clear. I wondered if it was due to the full moon that it was so much easier to hear him now.

What does that mean? I hated to encourage Danilo, but I wanted to know more about his sister's powers.

"It is not necessary for her survival to drink blood. A veshtiza gains her magic powers from blood, which she can only gather at the full moon in moth form. But it does not harm her if she does not change." Danilo's laugh was low and velvety in my head.

"Of course, it does not make her a happy person when she does not get to change. The empress's spell will make my sister a difficult person to live with."

Does she know? How are you aware of the empress's spell?

His laugh sickened my stomach. "Duchess, I know most of your secrets. We are bound, remember?"

I shuddered, wishing once again there was a way to remove the blood bond between us. I could not let the crown prince know all of my secrets. But how could I undo the fact that he had drunk my blood in order to complete his own ascension ritual? It had all been part of his parents' plan to make him as powerful a blood drinker as his father, the Montenegrin king. The king had received his own powers from drinking the queen's blood. Queen Milena had spent years searching for a necromancer bride for her eldest son. Unfortunately, the bride she had chosen was me.

"And no, Elena does not know of the empress's spell." Danilo's thoughts continued to invade my head. "I would not tell her if I were you."

I breathed a small sigh of relief. Thank you, Danilo.

He laughed again and I tried to ignore the way it made the hair on the back of my neck tingle. "Pleasant dreams, my love."

Chapter Fourteen

The first full moon had come and gone and most of the students seemed unusually restless. Elena in particular. And the German princess as well. She seemed to spend more and more time in the library, and would glare at me if I tried to enter the room while she was there.

"Alix, what is wrong with you?" Aurora Demidova snarled the next morning as Alix stomped around trying to get dressed for breakfast.

Princess Alix glared at her but said nothing. I wanted to stay out of it. Elena was exceptionally grumpy that morning too. I followed them down to the dining room and ate my cold porridge in silence, trying to avoid the nasty looks my roommates were casting at each other throughout the meal.

The next night was even worse, as all three of my roommates were vicious and snapping at each other. Aurora accused Elena of stealing her favorite slippers. Alix accused Aurora of stealing her red hair ribbon. Everyone went to bed fuming, but no one slept. As the waning moon filled our dark room with its dim silvery light, I breathed a sigh of relief that the empress's spell was keeping everyone safe from Elena's blood thirst.

I tried to pay closer attention to Princess Alix in the coming days. I had not noticed anything besides her shy façade, but perhaps Elena had been right. The princess had seemed more agitated than usual in the past week. She still did not fit in with the rest of us. I laughed to myself, realizing that I did not really fit in here either.

The nights had continued to bring broken sleep, with loud howling noises that woke me up and then disappeared. I could not tell if it was a dream or something real. I noticed several other girls at the breakfast table were looking hollow-eyed and fatigued as well.

Erzsebet was whispering with the girls at her table, but suddenly stopped as Elena and I sat down. I caught Augusta sneaking glances at Elena several times during breakfast. Aurora took her plate and sat at the head of the table, close to the table where the headmistress and Madame Orbellani ate. Alix ate her food quietly and ignored everyone. She did not seem to be suffering quite as much as the rest of us.

"Alix, did you sleep well?" I asked. "I hope my tossing and turning did not disturb you."

She shook her head, but kept on eating daintily. Elena kicked my foot under the table. I ignored her.

Augusta was staring at her plate. Elena yawned. "You definitely kept me up."

Alix glanced at Elena, her eyebrow raised slightly. "Perhaps you should pay a visit to Sister Anna. I am sure she could find a way to help you sleep easily."

Erzsebet threw her fork down, and the clattering noise silenced every other girl in the dining room. "Why isn't the headmistress doing anything?" she cried, getting up hastily and running out.

Augusta looked horrified. She glanced toward the headmistress's table, not sure if she should go after her sister or not. Madame Tomilov's face showed no emotion as she rose calmly from her seat and left after Erzsebet. "Do you think she'll be expelled?" Augusta whispered. She was blinking back tears.

I grabbed her hand and squeezed it. "I don't think this is serious enough for that." I had never heard of anyone being expelled from Smolny.

"Finish eating, girls. It will be time for class soon." Madame Orbellani's voice was soothing, but firm. She looked a little tired as well. I wondered how much sleep she had gotten lately.

Whether it was something Elena or Alix was doing, I needed to find out what was happening at Smolny. I remembered the presence I'd sensed in the library the past week. A chill went down my spine. Was the school haunted by a ghost? We'd never felt such a presence before. Why now, when the empress's spell was supposed to be keeping us all safe from anything supernatural?

Chapter Fifteen

My class in pedagogy was small-only three other girls and myself-in a tiny classroom with Madame Fredericks, an elderly German woman who was more interested in reading Marie Corelli romances than teaching us how to teach others. And I was to begin with a French grammar lesson. That morning was my first class with the Blue Form girls, the form between the youngest Browns and the oldest Whites.

Seventeen girls, ages twelve to fourteen, in royal-blue uniforms sat in a stuffy classroom, staring at me expectantly. My stomach was twisting into knots, even though I'd prepared my notes and reviewed them over and over in bed the night before. I gave them all a brave smile. "Good morning," I said.

The blank looks on their faces reminded me of the members of the Order of St. Lazarus standing guard outside our school gates. It took everything I had to repress a shudder. It didn't help that Madame Fredericks was sitting at the back of the room to review my progress. I spoke up a little louder this time, smiling an even braver smile. "Good morning."

"How do you answer your teacher?" Madame Fredericks said in a gruff, booming voice. She was writing notes in a journal. So much for taking control of my students right from the beginning.

"Good morning, Mademoiselle," the girls said obediently. Mon Dieu, they even sounded like the undead soldiers. I chose to believe it was because it was so early in the morning.

"My name is Mademoiselle Katerina, and today we are going to study French verbs." I turned around and picked up a piece of chalk. "Let's start with one of the easier ones," I said as I wrote the word aimer on the dusty board. I heard several giggles behind me and smiled to myself. At least they were paying attention. I turned around. "Now we will all say the verb together, and one of you will come up to the front and write it on the board."

Their voices chanted low and unsteadily. "J'aime, tu aimes, il aime, nous aimons, vous aimez, ils aiment ..."

"Excellent," I said, trying to encourage them. I walked between the aisles of wooden desks, which were probably older than I, and stopped in front of a dark-haired girl with bright-green eyes. In French I asked her name, and then placed the chalk in her hand. "Charlotte, will you write the verbs as we speak them again?"

"Oui, Mademoiselle," she said, standing up from her desk.

Madame Fredericks was no longer paying attention to the class. She was absorbed in her romance novel. As long as the class continued according to my lesson plan, she would not bother me and I would receive a passing grade.

Charlotte stepped up to the board and raised her chalk, ready for the class to recite their verbs. But before anyone could say anything, her hand moved with a jerk and she began to scrawl across the board, in Russian: STAY OUT OF THE LIBRARY.

The girls gasped. I moved quickly toward Charlotte, who was now standing with a blank stare in front of the board. "Thank you, dear," I said, erasing the board swiftly. I took the chalk from her hand and guided her gently back to her seat. The temperature had dropped dramatically in the classroom, and I saw several of the students begin to shiver.

Madame Fredericks did not raise her head from her book once. Charlotte still looked a little dazed, so I asked another girl at the desk closest to her to please take her to the nurse.

"Shall we repeat our verbs again?" I asked, praying that I'd erased the message so quickly, no one would remember it. The sudden chill was gone, but I was shaking myself. What had happened to Charlotte? Had she been possessed by the ghost? Was the ghost trying to communicate through her?

A sea of hands shot up. "Mademoiselle Katerina? What is in the library? Did Madame Tomilov make it off-limits? Is it off-limits to the Browns and the Whites as well? Why did Charlotte write that?"

I sighed. I had once again lost control of my class. "I do not know. But I would like to return to the topic of French verbs. Let's try another one." I turned around and wrote embrasser on the board. To kiss. Let them giggle at that one. I faced the class again. "Let's conjugate this one together. "J'embrasse, tu embrasses, il embrasse, nous embrassons ..."

I made it through the last fifteen minutes of the lesson with no more strange disruptions. After the students filed out into the hall and headed for their next class, Madame Fredericks stood up and handed my evaluation to me. "Next time, do not allow the students to write on the board," she told me. "They will do anything to get out of class."

"Of course, Madame," I said. I should have been glad that she hadn't noticed the chill in the room, or the haunted look on Charlotte's face. But the only emotion I felt at that moment was dull rage. And fear. How could this be happening in spite of the empress's spell? And why couldn't I see the ghost? When Madame Fredericks dismissed me, I went straight to Sister Anne to check on Charlotte.

Charlotte's color was much improved. She was reading her French textbook but looked up and smiled when she saw me. "Bonjour, Mademoiselle Katerina," she said.

"You look as if you're feeling better," I said.

Sister Anne seemed pleased. "You may return to your classes now, Charlotte."

I walked with the young Blue Form girl on my way to my own classes. "Do you remember what happened this morning?"

Charlotte frowned. "A little. I was standing in front of the chalkboard and the next thing I knew, I felt cold and dizzy. Did I pass out?"

"No," I assured her. "But you did look as if you might. Do you remember what you wrote on the board?"

She looked up at me, her face full of guilt. "I didn't write anything. I was supposed to write the French verbs but I never did. Am I in trouble?"

"No, Charlotte. Of course you're not in trouble. You should probably hurry on to class now."

A ghost. There was no way I could see its cold light as long as the empress's spell was in place. I felt helpless. As much as I dreaded it, I realized I would have to return to the library to investigate. The school day dragged on endlessly, through Mathematics, and French, and Domestic Arts, and Music, but at last my classes were over and I headed for the library.

"Katerina, are you coming with us?" Elena and Augusta were headed outside to get fresh air in the courtyard.

"I'll catch up with you. There is something in the library that I need."

Elena rolled her eyes. "You and your books! Augusta, come along."

I hurried alone to the library, not sure what I could actually do. The empress's spell had rendered me powerless. If there was a ghost, what would I be able to do about it?

Princess Alix was in the library, reading a volume of English poetry. I was not expecting to see anyone there, and I know I looked startled. "Excuse me," I said. "I'm ... just getting a book and I'll leave you in peace."

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